Spread the love

Oregon backtracks on street drug decriminalization

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon Agence France-Presse A police officer searches an individual before fining him for drug possession, in downtown Portland, January 2024. Oregon lawmakers voted in early April to overturn the drug decriminalization measure statewide.

Fabien Deglise in Portland

Posted at 9:56 a.m.

  • United States

The scene is chaotic, in broad daylight, in a peaceful residential area in the Southeastern district of Portland: in the middle of hastily erected tents, a woman moves between a pile of garbage, a crate filled with bicycle parts and a survival blanket caught in flight by a mesh fence and now fluttering in the wind.

Behind her, three men, their bodies wavering, stood leaning against a wall to find some semblance of balance, glass pipes in hand, to smoke. Fentanyl, meth or other toxic substance. Their conversation is confused, sometimes crossed by lamentations.

It is noon. Just a block away, on Stark Avenue, a brewery, two nicely decorated cafes, a hairdresser, a pet store and an elementary school liven up an otherwise ordinary day, in a city where two worlds now coexist: one, with these “hipster” workers waiting for their latte at the window of a truck and these women, yoga mats slung over their shoulders walking with a determined step towards their classes, the other, with these penniless retirees , shaggy hair, these unemployed, these excluded people camping in the street in front of a church and these itinerants knocked out by drugs and slumped on a sidewalk. Both visible equally.

Oregon backtracks on street drug decriminalization

Photo: Fabien Deglise Le Devoir In Portland, the fentanyl and homelessness crises have just cost the lives of the country's most progressive politicians.

“The city has changed in recent years, and not for the better,” says Diana Rempe, a volunteer with Street Books, a library on wheels that walks the streets on bikes to lend books to the homeless. shelters. We are in the middle of a major crisis. And I don't think our politicians are responding adequately. »

Also read

  • British Columbia recriminalizes drug use

“It’s a mess”

Oregon had dreamed of becoming a model in 2021, by adopting a law decriminalizing drug possession, a first in the United States. The progressive measure, inspired by street drug management policies in force in Portugal, was supposed to put an end to repression and above all to bring the State into a new era. The one treating drug addicts no longer as criminals, but as sick people who needed to be offered health and rehabilitation services.

But a pandemic later, accompanied by An explosion in fentanyl consumption, which is now dousing the entire west coast of the United States, and a governance crisis which has reduced the number of affordable housing available, the results are far from being what was hoped for.

“It’s a mess,” says Maher Makboul, owner of a Turkish sandwich restaurant in the Northwest neighborhood. Look around: there are homeless people everywhere. In the morning, I have to pick up their excrement and waste on the steps of my business. The city sometimes comes to make them leave, but they return a few days later. Lots of people came here to Oregon, thinking that they would be able to consume drugs freely, and have shelters to sleep and eat. But in the end, we end up where and with what ? All these policies are a failure. » A failure admitted by state elected officials.

Oregon backtracks on street drug decriminalization

Photo: Fabien Deglise Le Devoir Nearly 12,000 people are homeless in the greater Portland area, half of them outside. Far too many for the 2,600 beds offered in shelters, the number of which has quintupled since 2015.

After declaring a 90-day state of emergency in downtown Portland in early January, in the hope of combating the effects of fentanyl and blatant homelessness on the streets of the city. largest city in the state, Oregon lawmakers voted in early April to overturn the statewide drug decriminalization measure. A gesture which thus reverses a policy approved by referendum by 60% of the inhabitants of the State in 2020.

The new law was signed the next day by Democratic Governor Tina Kotek, making possession of small amounts of drugs a felony punishable by up to six months in prison. However, offenders remain faced with the choice of avoiding criminal sanctions by agreeing to be referred to drug addiction and mental health services.

The urgency to act

“With an overdose mortality rate increasing by more than 40% per year, we should not have waited any longer 12 months before returning to criminalization, estimates in an interview with Devoir Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and specialist in street drugs at Stanford University in California. That could have meant a thousand more deaths.”

An opinion shared by Max Williams, former Oregon parliamentarian and former director of state corrections, who for months led the charge at the head of a coalition calling for a reversal of decriminalization policies. In the name of public health and safety. And he is enjoying his victory today.

“With the substantial influx of cheap fentanyl that entered the community at the same time as the passage of this law , it simply created cataclysmic conditions, he says. The number of fatal overdoses has skyrocketed, from 280 to 1,250 per year between 2019 and 2023, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.

He adds: “The mistake was made from the start. When the state chose the decriminalization route, we were ranked 49th out of 50 states in access to drug treatment. The result is that we have been lax on drug use, while at the same time being woefully incompetent when it comes to investing in treatment capacity. And this couldn't have gone well. »

Suffering and insecurity

In the streets of Portland, the image that emerges is edifying with these colonies of basic tents covered with tarpaulins which multiply on the sidewalks of the city center, in the parks of residential areas, in the parking lots of industrial districts or below motorway interchanges. Sometimes a smoky head comes out. Other times, it's a cry of despair, like near Union Station, where a woman just noticed that her goldfish, contained in a tiny plastic aquarium, was dying in its murky water. . City employees came to his aid, pouring the contents of a bottle into it… before continuing to dismantle his camp.

An audit carried out by the office joint office of the municipality and Multnomah County, which includes the greater Portland area, indicated in mid-April that nearly 12,000 people live without a home, half of them outside. Far too many for the 2,600 beds offered in shelters, the number of which has quintupled since 2015.

“This is generating a lot of outrage among Portlanders who are tired of seeing all the homelessness, drug abuse out in the open, and the crime that comes with it. People no longer feel safe, summarizes Alicia Ellingwood, manager of a thrift store run by a community organization in downtown Portland. But was it necessary to put an end to the decriminalization policy ? I don’t believe so. This probably remains an effective measure which was poorly implemented and above all repealed too early, before having had the chance to work. »

A political gesture

« From the point of view of social sciences, there is no data and especially not enough time to justify the reversal of decriminalization, comments political scientist James Moore from Forest Grove, where he teaches at Pacific University. What motivated this choice was the frustration caused by fentanyl and the link that was made by people and several elected officials between this crisis, homelessness and the new framework around drug consumption.

“It’s a political gesture above all,” adds Jeffrey Bratberg, professor of pharmacy and addiction specialist from the University of Rhode Island. “A move that is nothing more than a false promise of change intended to distract from the incompetence of politicians and the negligence of Oregon government agencies in implementing this policy, and this, as an electoral campaign approaches where their re-election is at stake.”

“But the fact remains that it is the chronic underfinancing in matters affordable housing, effective substance abuse services, and accessible health care that are at the root of the heartbreaking suffering we see on Oregon's streets,” he concludes.

If Oregon's failed experiment in drug addiction now becomes a stain on the state and the city of Portland, it is as much on the roadmap of Democrats as of Republicans, who worked jointly on the establishment of this decriminalization policy and who remained just as united to overturn it during a bipartisan vote in early April, underlines Max Williams. His coalition was leaning in favor of bringing back the criminalization of street drugs by referendum, during the vote next November, for the sake of democracy, the measure having been adopted this way. “No one had any interest in this issue landing in the voting booth,” he says, because of the political burden that the failure of decriminalization places on both sides. “This is why elected officials wanted to act early and quickly. »

But going backwards also risks becoming a burden, for “the proponents of this non-repressive approach who over the next few years will have great difficulty promoting it elsewhere in the country,” he assures.

“As for us, it took us three or four years to dig the hole we find ourselves in today. And it may take us just as long to get out of this.”

This report was funded with support from the International Journalism Fund Transat-Le Devoir.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116