To Revive Portland, Officials Seek to Ban Public Drug Use

After years of rising overdoses and an exodus of business from central Portland, Gov. Tina Kotek of Oregon said on Monday that state and city officials are proposing to roll back a portion of the nation’s most wide-ranging drug decriminalization law in a bid to revive the troubled city.

Under the plan brokered by Gov. Kotek, a Democrat, state lawmakers would be asked to consider a ban on public drug use and police would be given greater resources to deter the distribution of drugs. Ms. Kotek said officials hoped to restore a sense of safety for both visitors and workers in the city’s beleaguered urban core, which has seen an exodus of key retail outlets, including REI, an institution in the Pacific Northwest.

“When it comes to open-air drug use, nobody wants to see that,” Ms. Kotek said in an interview. “We need different tools to send the message that that is not acceptable behavior.”

Along with new drug use prohibitions and an expanded police presence, a task force led by the governor also proposed a moratorium on new taxes and other tax relief targeted at encouraging businesses to remain in the city. The group also called for increased services for homeless residents, including more shelter capacity, and emergency declarations at multiple levels of government to help open more services to people struggling with drug addiction.

Oregon voters in 2020 approved the nation’s first law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamines. The ballot measure sought to end the use of jail as a punishment for drug users and instead treat addiction as a health issue. The effort was to be joined with major new investments in drug treatment, but those new systems have been slow to develop.

In the meantime, cities around the country have been struggling to manage both widespread homelessness and an overdose crisis spurred by the rapid spread of fentanyl, a particularly addictive drug that is both cheap and deadly. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has pressed to arrest drug users, saying “tough love” is sometimes needed. Last month, Seattle implemented a new law that prohibits possession of drugs and public use.

Police respond to a man who died of a suspected overdose in downtown Portland in July.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Empty cartridges of Kloxxado, a naloxone nasal spray that is twice as concentrated as Narcan, lay on the street after a security guard used four of them to revive a man in Portland.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“Portland is changing,” Ms. Kotek said, adding that the new approach could be a model for other cities. Multnomah County, which includes Portland, has been approaching 500 overdose deaths a year, up from about 200 in 2019, and statewide deaths were up 28 percent over the past year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the second highest jump in the nation, behind Washington State.

In September, the Portland City Council approved a ban on public drug use that comes with a potential punishment of six months in jail, but the measure will only go into effect if lawmakers change state law.

Advocates for drug-policy reform expressed alarm about the prospect of bringing back criminal penalties for drug use. Tera Hurst, the executive director of the nonprofit Health Justice Recovery Alliance, said the focus should be on providing people access to services. She noted that many people struggling with addiction have challenges accessing services.

Putting the emphasis on prosecution and policing effectively criminalizes poverty, Ms. Hurst said, as many of the people using drugs publicly are homeless. And she expressed fear that people will instead seek to use drugs in private, where they have a higher chance of overdosing.

“When we push it back into the criminal system, it pushes people back into the shadows,” Ms. Hurst said. “People will die because of this.”

The arrival of fentanyl and a potent new methamphetamine has brought new challenges with Oregon’s more open drug policies, including people dealing with deeper addiction and mental health struggles than before, said Dr. Andy Mendenhall, the president and C.E.O. of Central City Concern, a nonprofit focused on helping the homeless.

His nonprofit supported the passage of Measure 110, the drug decriminalization initiative. He said he continued to support the overall decriminalization effort, though he recognized the need for modifications.

“We are in a very strong position of, ‘Revise, do not repeal,’” he said. He said there was value in offering people treatment as a diversion option during a criminal process.

Dr. Mendenhall works in the Old Town neighborhood of downtown. Tents cover the sidewalks in some places, with some people lying motionless near the street and others exhibiting clear signs of mental illness, a scene that Dr. Mendenhall said can leave visitors feeling unsafe.

Three weeks ago, he said, he was walking between meetings in the neighborhood when someone flagged him down to call attention to a young man who was not breathing. Dr. Mendenhall reached into his bag to pull out a dose of naloxone, which helps treat overdoses. He said it took four doses and rescue breathing to revive the man.

Oregon voters in 2020 approved the nation’s first law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of hard drugs.Credit…Amanda Lucier for The New York Times
The task force called for increased services for homeless residents, including more shelter capacity.Credit…Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

After paramedics arrived, he said, the man chose not to go to the hospital or to be immediately connected with addiction treatment services.

Ms. Kotek’s task force does not have the power to immediately ban public drug use, but the panel called for the Legislature to take up the issue in the coming session along with changes that could reduce barriers to prosecuting those who deliver drugs. Lawmakers have already been discussing potential changes to the decriminalization law, and some key legislators were part of Ms. Kotek’s task force.

Marcy Landolfo, a Portland business owner, said that the effort was overdue. One of her retail businesses, Rains, a wet weather gear and clothing store, endured 15 break-ins over the span of about two years before she decided to shutter the store, she said. Her other store outside of the central city had a break-in last week.

Ms. Landolfo said she supported the decriminalization plan when it was on the ballot in 2020. But after learning more about the effects of drugs like methamphetamine and seeing the challenges throughout the city, she said, she welcomed an effort to ban public drug use and try to reclaim the city.

The future of Portland looks promising, Ms. Landolfo said, adding that she hopes she can one day reopen the store she closed, as the city recovers.

“I truly believe we hit rock bottom,” Ms. Landolfo said. “I’m sticking around for when it gets good again.”

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