File | The Press in Portland | Opioids: lessons from Oregon (3 articles)

(Portland, Oregon) Is this the same Ted Wheeler who is before us?

The mayor of Portland achieved national notoriety in 2020, when Donald Trump sent the federal police to bring order to his city, where demonstrations and riots followed day after day. At the 55e day of protests after police officers killed George Floyd, Mayor Wheeler himself was on the front lines when federal agents fired tear gas.

Shortly after, citing “white privilege” and systemic racism, he announced a “defunding” of the police – a 6% reduction in budget and staffing.


July 2020: Mayor Ted Wheeler speaks to protesters during a Black Lives Matter rally in Portland.

The same mayor, 10 days ago, renewed his promise to hire… 300 police officers in Portland.

On a force of 800 peace officers, that’s an increase of 37.5%.

The figure, promised for three years, is staggering and frankly unrealistic. Even with the promise of a $25,000 “signing bonus” for some police officers, recruitment is slow.

But it says a lot about the spectacular shift of a city to the progressive American vanguard that wants to send a message of security and order.

So what happened? There has been an increase in crime, including a skyrocketing number of homicides. What happened was the disorderly installation of hundreds of tents, and people finding refuge in the entrances to businesses and buildings.


Homeless people who found shelter in the entrance of a building in downtown Portland last December

There has been a commercial desertion of the city center, which has become an open market for the sale and consumption of everything that can be smoked, injected and snorted.

Because since 2021, following a popular vote, the possession of “hard drugs” has been decriminalized in Oregon. Around the time fentanyl was starting to take its toll.

A “huge mistake,” Mayor Wheeler now says, along with just about every politician in both parties.

In April, Oregon completely canceled this reform touted as visionary barely three years ago.

A bit like two smeared scientists emerging from a smoky laboratory after a failed experiment, Mayor Wheeler and Governor Tina Kotek appeared before journalists 10 days ago in Portland.

They gave the most optimistic assessment possible of the “90 days of state of emergency for the fentanyl crisis”, declared in February. Every morning at 8 a.m. during these three months, a task force took stock of operations: more “positive” police presence, investigation of overdoses, cleaning of graffiti, mobile rehab clinics, better lighting, investigations of dealers. …

The mayor touted the best crime statistics. Shootings have decreased. Homicides too: 73 last year, compared to 97 the year before. But there were 36 murders in 2019, already the highest number in 15 years.


Oregon Governor Tina Kotek and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler at a press conference last December

This city is still in post-traumatic shock.

Oregon, and more particularly Portland, has become the example not to follow throughout North America. On the right, where we think we will find proof that the decriminalization of drugs removes responsibility from individuals and leads directly to social chaos. And on the left, where we say that the problem is not decriminalization, but the lack of coherence of policies: it is not enough to no longer send people to prison, we must also offer them services.

Decriminalization was not a project led by a political party, although several Democrats were in favor of it. It was an initiative of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization which denounces the devastating effects of the “war on drugs” waged by the Americans for years with billions, and without success. The organization, supported by George Soros, obtained enough signatures on a petition to put “Measure 110” on the ballot in 2020.

On paper, the proposition was attractive: you don’t solve anything by making users criminals, after all. The resources of the police, courts and prisons are wasted. Better to direct them to social services and “treatment”. We cite the example of Portugal, where social services have fully integrated this reality since 2001. We planned to use the profits from the sale of cannabis, legal since 2015 here, to finance social programs.

It seemed not only empathetic, but self-funded!

Voters voted 58 percent in favor of the measure aptly called the “Drug Addiction and Recovery Act.” Simple possession of “hard” drugs, previously punishable by a six-month prison sentence, became a minor offense carrying a fine of $100.

Except that the United States is not Portugal, and even in Oregon, health care is not state-controlled. The support services that should have been put in place were not there, or at least not enough. And… fentanyl made it worse.

The number of unintentional deaths due to opioids increased from 472 to 1,049 between 2020 and 2023. The pace has not slowed this year, hence the state of emergency which is ending, although the emergency is still present…

Proponents of decriminalization have insisted that the increase in fatal overdoses – which is real – has nothing to do with decriminalization. We see comparable mortality curves in the majority of large cities in North America. And it is not the absence of criminal sanctions for drug users that is the cause of crime, they argue.

Let us add that the housing crisis and evictions, which have led many people to the street, have no connection with measure 110.

Except that the daily spectacle of Portland’s degradation, whatever the root cause, has turned the tide. The measure has become extremely unpopular.

“There’s no doubt that the city’s reputation has been affected,” Tim Knopp, a Portland native who until spring was the Republican leader in the Oregon Senate, told me.


Homeless encampments in Portland last October

“Portland was like a dumpster on fire on national news, people don’t want to go downtown anymore, they’re getting harassed by drunk people, cars are getting smashed, there’s thefts… Five years ago, it was was a very safe city. It’s all well and good, treatment on demand must be offered, but how can we think that people who have completely left will have the judgment to make this choice? It’s a bit ridiculous. We agree with investing in mental health, but there needs to be a criminal incentive to follow treatment. »

What passed for a conservative view not long ago is now the political consensus in the state, where outright repeal of the measure has been adopted in a bipartisan manner.

“Recriminalization” will be in force in September. But what is already obvious is the extent to which the authorities are overwhelmed by the fentanyl crisis, legal or not. The level of medical care required is enormous, because the devastation is enormous. Social services are also overwhelmed.

“If there’s a treatment bed open somewhere, I want to know!” » said the mayor, to give the impression that he is more or less in control of this city which is a little stunned, a little buzzed.


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