City commissioners blame a loophole in Oregon law for the proliferation of visible fentanyl and methamphetamine use on Oregon’s streets. Now, they’re pressuring state lawmakers to change it.

Oregon law currently doesn’t prohibit the public use of controlled substances, and it doesn’t allow local governments to do so, either. Portland City Council voted unanimously Wednesday, Sept. 6, to direct the city’s Office of Government Relations to lobby state lawmakers for an amendment to Oregon’s law. Council also approved a separate ordinance that would amend city code to ban the possession or consumption of controlled substances, as soon as state law changes or a court rules in the city’s favor.

A statewide push for drug policy reform and decriminalization culminated in the passage of Measure 110 in 2020, suggesting Oregon was eager to undo the harm caused by decades of failed federal drug policy and give addicts easier pathways to recovery. Three years later, Portland’s leaders say the scourge of fentanyl over the last few years has created a new beast, and they have no mechanism to fight it. 

"The last time I saw someone consuming what I believe to be fentanyl, publicly on our streets, was less than five minutes ago,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said, introducing a resolution for council’s consideration.

Critics worry the council is trying to re-hash failed policies of the War on Drugs. Others say the resolution will do nothing in the near-term, and could cause harm, long-term. 

The approved resolution notes that it’s legal to use alcohol and cannabis, but it’s also legal to regulate it. Under Measure 110, it’s also legal to have “small amounts of certain controlled substances,” but longstanding state law neither prohibits public consumption, nor allows local governments to do so, resulting in what city officials call “a regulatory disparity between alcohol, cannabis, and other controlled substances.”

Portland leaders want state lawmakers to make it a Class A misdemeanor to use hard drugs in public, like it is for alcohol and cannabis. The council’s resolution also wants local governments to be able to enact and enforce their own laws around public consumption.

Wednesday’s proposal was introduced by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez–the city’s de facto torchbearer of hardline policies toward homelessness. Gonzalez’s proposal comes just a few months after Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed a similar ordinance, but later abandoned it, saying a new state law criminalizing fentanyl possession could be enough to curb public drug use. 

Gonzalez announced last Thursday–nearly a week before a public vote took place–that he had full buy-in from the council on the ordinance. 

“This will allow us to more easily connect people in need to critical services while restoring expectations on public behavior and reaffirming a social contract many feel has been broken,” Gonzalez stated in an Aug. 30 announcement. 

On Wednesday, the commissioner touted the measure as an overdue response to public pleas for help.

“We’ve heard you,” Gonzalez said. “You’re exhausted with open-air drug use and you're demanding action." Gonzalez said the city is "taking a stand."

“Come to our beautiful city to visit, to build families, businesses, beautiful organizations, but don't come here to camp out and do hard drugs.”

Gonzalez’s staff invited a long roster of business leaders, first responders, and recovery experts to address the City Council. Employees from Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) and Portland Street Response–both bureaus he oversees–gave testimony about the proliferation of drug overdoses and barriers to getting sober.

A PF&R firefighter/EMT from Station 1 in Old Town said fire crews responded to about 40 overdose calls over the Labor Day weekend. He noted the mental health toll of repeatedly treating overdoses, often to see the same people overdose again within days or weeks, but said Portland EMTs–often the first and only people to respond to overdose calls–don’t commonly refer people to addiction treatment services after treating them.

Tony Vezina, co-founder and executive director of 4D Recovery, said he supported the council’s plan, but also cautioned city leaders about the shortcomings of criminalization. 

“I would suggest you broaden the scope of government affairs efforts in alignment with more sensible efforts, to fix the parts of Measure 110 that haven’t been working, specifically, drug courts,” Vezina said. “Intervention without intention and just simply criminalizing public use in isolation, I do not think will be a sufficient approach to this problem.”

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, an ER doctor, championed the council’s proposal, lambasting her colleagues at the county for a lack of action, and calling Measure 110 a failed rollout by the state.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran addresses Portland City
Council. To her right, Portland Community Safety Director, Stephanie Howard. courtney vaughn

“While I appreciate the intention of Measure 110, I believe the Oregon Health Authority verged on the criminally negligent in how they allowed the measure to roll out, and harm and death have resulted from decriminalization without a plan,” Meieran said. The county commissioner said the county chair, Jessica Vega Pedersen, should declare the fentanyl crisis a public health emergency, to allow for more flexibility in spending to help curb the addiction crisis.

Much of the conversation that preceded the council’s vote centered around downtown businesses and tourism.

Jeff Miller, CEO of Travel Portland, said homelessness and open-air drug use has led travelers and convention planners to steer clear of the city.

“I’m here to advocate for the visitors, meeting planners, and delegates, whose only opportunity to communicate their hesitation about visiting Portland is to decline to book a trip, or a convention to our city, and they are using that mechanism to communicate their uncertainty about what the Portland tourism experience is in 2023,” Miller told the council.

But homeless advocates, recovering addicts, and service organizations questioned the city’s hyper-fixation on tourism, and warned city leaders that criminalizing public drug use won’t stop the addiction crisis.

“It’s insufferable to hear such explicit focus on tourism, when rents have more than doubled in the last 10 years. We can’t afford the rents, so yes, some people have to take to tents,” Lauren Armony, program director with nonprofit social justice organization, Sisters of the Road, told city commissioners. “We need systemic solutions that address the root causes of addiction and overdose, not a continuation of the failed War on Drugs.”

Armony said the council’s end goal will only “marginalize substance users into unregulated and unsafe environments” noting most unhoused people have nowhere to go to discreetly or safely use drugs. Recent city ordinances that make it illegal to have tents in public during daytime hours only make it harder for users to shield their behavior from public view.

City commissioners said having a law would allow police and other first responders to refer more people to drug treatment programs, as called for in Measure 110. 

But right now, Portland has too few. 

A report on Oregon’s substance use disorder and gap in services published jointly in 2022 by Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University noted Oregon ranks first in the nation for percentage of people needing but not receiving treatment for substance use disorders. The same report recommends more harm reduction programs that offer access to safe use sites, clean needles and drug testing kits–measures which the city and county have soundly rejected in recent months. 

Recovering addicts and homeless services providers say the council’s effort to arrest drug users is expensive and ineffective at getting people off drugs.

“Undoubtedly, many people would benefit from referrals to drug treatment programs, but even if the capacity for this actually existed... The likelihood of someone relapsing when they are being released from such a program onto the street or, at best, a temporary shelter, is extremely high,” Justice Hager, who works with Armony at Sisters of the Road, told the Mercury

Hager pushed back on the notion that decriminalization and a lack of state law is fueling addiction. Instead, Hager suggests it’s “a direct byproduct of the opioid addiction crisis” fueled by heavy overprescription of opiates like OxyContin. 

City leaders acknowledged the need for more sobering and treatment centers, and noted the resolutions will only be effective with action at the state legislative or judicial level, with buy-in from other regional governments. 

“The ordinance before us today will not solve our fentanyl crisis, however, I do hope this is the beginning of the end of our fentanyl crisis as we begin to piece together strategies that help people who are struggling with that terrible drug,” Commissioner Mingus Mapps said.