Portland Admits Heroin Experiment a Failure

When Oregon voted to decriminalise possession of hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine and crystal meth 3 years ago, campaigners hailed the move as a brave step towards ending the failed war on drugs. Yet hope has given way to a grim realisation that the policy appears to have failed, with soaring overdose deaths and the state’s biggest city, Portland, suffering from crime and squalor. Now, Oregon’s Democratic Governor has announced proposals to roll back on sections of the much-heralded Measure 110 and ban public drug use in the city. The move, prompted by overdoses and an exodus of businesses from central Portland, represents a significant blow to the harm reduction movement, which will sting even more for having been introduced in one of the most liberal US states. Tina Kotek, the Governor, said a statewide fentanyl emergency must be declared, including greater police powers to crack down on dealers. It is an attempt to restore a sense of safety for residents and to bring back businesses. However, it was Ms Kotek’s call to ban public drug use that captured the most attention.

Critics of Measure 110, say it has had a disastrous effect. It is illegal to drink alcohol on the streets of Portland, but a common sight is homeless people smoking fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that is fueling America’s overdose crisis. Business owners say visitors fear walking city streets because of the flagrant drug use. Ms Kotek said: “What we found from Measure 110 is there was an unintended consequence of lack of clarity for what it means for public use. We don’t allow the public use of alcohol, and I don’t think we should allow the public use of drugs either.” The admission of failure comes just two months after the ACT became the first Australian jurisdiction to decriminalise small amounts of illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, ice and MDMA. Measure 110 directed Oregon’s cannabis tax revenue towards drug addiction treatment while decriminalising “personal use” amounts of illicit narcotics. Possession of less than a gram of heroin, for example, is subject only to a ticket and a maximum fine of $US100 ($152). Parts of the law have been mocked by critics. Those caught in possession can have the citation dismissed by calling a 24-hour hotline.

In the first year after the law took effect in February 2021, only 1% of people who received court orders for possession sought help. Perhaps most damning of all for Measure 110 has been the overdose figures. Supporters of harm reduction – which involves taking a more lenient approach to users, including giving them clean needles – said decriminalisation would lead to fewer deaths. However, estimates from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention show that among the states reporting data, Oregon had the highest increase in synthetic opioid overdose fatalities when comparing 2019 and the year ending June 30, 2023. Deaths surged from 84 to more than 1100. Those in favour of decriminalisation say. “When we push drug use back into the criminal system, it pushes people back into the shadows,” Tera Hurst, executive director of the non-profit organisation Health Justice Recovery Alliance, said. “People will die because of this.” Among Ms Kotek’s recommendations to revive Portland, are plans to expand the city’s homeless shelter capacity. The plans require approval from the state legislature.

Source: The New York Times

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