Oregon Is Recriminalizing Drugs. Here’s What Portland Learned.

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When Oregon embarked on a landmark plan three years ago to decriminalize hard drugs, it wagered that a focus on treatment over punishment would create a new model for drug policy around the country.

But after a deluge of overdose deaths and frequent chaos in the streets of Portland, Gov. Tina Kotek signed into law on Monday a measure to restore criminal penalties for drug possession. It brought to an end a key portion of one of the nation’s most ambitious attempts to find alternatives other than jail for drug users, embodied in a 2020 voter initiative known as Measure 110.

The rollback has supporters among a wide range of public officials, including Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland, who found himself presiding over a series of crises since taking office in 2016. They included surging unsheltered homelessness, turbulent street protests, an exodus of downtown businesses, record numbers of homicides, the rapid spread of fentanyl and soaring overdose deaths.

Over the past year, Mr. Wheeler has set out to restore order. He has battled in court to ban daytime camping and tried to establish mass shelter locations (known in Portland as TASS sites) for those without housing. After initially supporting budget cuts to the police department, he has pushed to increase the law enforcement presence in the city and to crack down on crime.

And he concluded that it was time to restore criminal penalties for hard drug possession. Under the new law, people caught with small amounts of drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine could face up to 180 days in jail, although lawmakers also built in a series of offramps that allow people in many cases to get treatment instead of confinement.

Mr. Wheeler sat down with The New York Times recently to discuss the shift on drug policy and his city’s future. Here are excerpts from the interview, edited and condensed for length and clarity.

There’s concern that bringing back criminal penalties is going back to the war on drugs. Is that what’s happening?

The war on drugs didn’t work. And so I hope the answer to that question is ‘no.’ And I hope this isn’t an excuse for people to turn their backs on the hard work of building a mental health system. We’re doing that, and we’re doing it at the very local level. At our TASS sites, we actually went out and we contracted at the municipal level with service providers who can provide basic behavioral health, substance-use disorder, domestic-violence treatment, job training. We’re creating those pathways.

So we appreciate that the legislature took the steps to return law enforcement and public safety tools to our first responders. I think that was necessary. But it’s also necessary to do the hard work to build the behavioral health infrastructure that was lacking.

When you look back to 2020, when Measure 110 passed, you have pretty wide support in Oregon. In Portland, three-quarters of voters in this area approved it. I’m curious how excited you were at the time about this new path that was emerging

I was cautiously optimistic. I’ve been around enough to know that it’s always in the implementation.

Where do you think things most went wrong with the measure?

There’s no question that the state botched the implementation. And as I say, the timing couldn’t have been worse. In terms of the botched implementation: To decriminalize the use of drugs before you actually had the treatment services in place was obviously a huge mistake.

With the benefit of hindsight, the way that should have been structured is that it would create the mechanism for funding. The state would build up its behavioral health services, and when it reached a certain threshold, then they would decriminalize. It shouldn’t have gone the other way around.

The truth is that addiction rates and overdose rates skyrocketed. I personally do not attribute all of that to the passage of Measure 110. I think you can see national trends that would suggest that it wasn’t all ballot Measure 110, but it was very easy for the public to draw a line between the passage of Measure 110, the decriminalization of hard drugs, the increase in addiction and the increase in overdoses — and criminal activity associated with drugs.

You’ve said that you’ve been concerned about the future viability of this city. What does a worst-case scenario look like to you?

A worst-case scenario is a city where you don’t have laws that can be enforced. You don’t have alternative treatment for those who are ready to be treated. And you lose the public’s trust in your local institutions of democracy. That’s when things start to unwind. We’re not there. And I will tell you, from where I was sitting four years ago today, night and day difference. I’m very optimistic about the future of this city.

I hear your optimism.

I can see it. I mean, the city looks much better. Foot traffic is way up. Criminal activity is way down. With the opening of our TASS sites, with the expansion of our services at our safe-rest villages, we have a thousand new shelter beds we didn’t have even a year ago. Things have improved.

At the same time, in relatively recent polling, I think 81 percent said they feel unsafe going downtown in Portland at night. Are they wrong to feel that way?

I would never tell anybody they’re wrong to feel unsafe. If you feel unsafe, you feel unsafe. And that is your prerogative. What I would say is, objectively, crime rates are way down.

I was looking back when you first ran for office in 2015. One of your big messages was trying to deal with this nexus of homelessness and mental health issues and addiction. You had vowed at the time to eliminate unsheltered homelessness by 2018. What went wrong?

Well, first of all, I’m not a great predictor of the future, it turns out. I don’t think anybody in 2015 could have possibly imagined where we would be today, as a city, as a state, as a nation. In 2015, P2P meth didn’t exist. Fentanyl didn’t exist. We hadn’t seen the explosion in the homeless population that we saw, particularly during the pandemic, but also leading up to the pandemic. What happened there, I think, honestly, is the long-term decisions we had made as a state to not invest in behavioral health, to not invest in treatment services, came home to roost as all of these crises hit simultaneously during Covid.

Do you look at yourself and say, “I have blame in this?”

I think we all have blame in this. Of course. We have somewhat reaped what we have sown. And I don’t just mean here in Portland, Oregon. I mean as a nation. Our nation has been very slow to accept behavioral health as an important issue. It’s starting to happen. It’s happening with particularly a younger generation being more willing to talk about it openly.

Along with this rollback of Measure 110, across the country there’s been a shift toward more conservative policies on policing and crime and drug policy. What do you think is motivating that shift?

People are exhausted from feeling like they’re under siege. They want order restored to their environment. And that makes perfect sense to me. These are very dislocating times. These are uncertain times for people economically, socially, in terms of the environment. There are so many existential threats. I mean, even despotism is seeming to grow worldwide. These are very uncertain times.

And you see it particularly amongst young people. I feel it. I think other people feel it, too. And so they have a minimum expectation that where they live is an orderly, safe, secure, prosperous place to be. And if they don’t see it, that is unsettling. They need to have that.

For other states or cities that are thinking about drug decriminalization — it might not be this year, maybe it’s down the line — what would be your guidance?

The treatment infrastructure has to be in place first.

Do you think there is a future where decriminalization could happen again? Or have we learned some other lesson about hard drugs in society?

I do believe there is a future where decriminalization in favor of treatment could happen, but it can’t happen if you don’t have the treatment, and that seems self-evident. There’s no question that what Oregon did was a bold experiment, and it failed. Let’s just be honest about that. It was botched in terms of the implementation. The timing was wrong, and frankly, the politics were wrong.

Going forward, could this experiment happen again? I don’t think anybody will completely decriminalize the use of drugs. I wouldn’t support it, personally, but the piece about providing enough behavioral health services is critically important. And again, in this country, we haven’t done that.


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