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22 Jun 2024 14:50
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  •   Home > News > International

    Oregon's drug decriminalisation experiment is being rolled back after three years of rising drug use

    Welcome to Portland, Oregon, the US city that decriminalised drugs and nearly immediately regretted it.


    Used needles litter the daytime pavement in downtown Portland, Oregon, as officers from the city's police bicycle unit weave around tents and shopping trolleys — all signs of the city's rapid decline.

    The police soon come across an elderly woman slumped at a park bench with shopping bags at her feet and drug paraphernalia in her hands.

    She rocks herself, sobbing, her face in her hands, as Officer Eli Arnold retrieves two containers of light-coloured powder from her possession.

    "That's meth and that's fentanyl," he tells 7.30, as he shows us the drugs.

    "The meth is crystalline and this chunky powder is the fentanyl."

    In any other state in America, the woman would be charged and sent to court.

    But not in Portland, where the use and possession of hard drugs such as methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin, are legal — but not for much longer.

    "Let's just use this as an education opportunity," Officer Arnold tells the woman, handing her a card with a number to a health service written on it, in the hope she seeks treatment.

    The reason this woman isn't in more trouble is because of Measure 110 — a radical law change that was overwhelmingly approved by Oregon voters back in 2020, which decriminalised the possession of and use of small quantities of hard drugs.

    Instead of police arresting people who are openly using, they instead hand them a citation. A fine of $US100 ($150) can be waived if the individual completes a health assessment on the phone with an addiction recovery centre.

    They leave the woman and find another slumped over a wheelchair a few streets over.

    On a nearby street corner, a group of men smoke fentanyl and methamphetamine, while another lays splayed unconscious on the sidewalk.

    Fentanyl, 50 cents a cap

    The explosion of fentanyl is a crisis across the US, but nowhere is it more visible than in Oregon.

    The potent synthetic opioid can be bought for as little as 50 cents, and just two milligrams can deliver a fatal dose.

    The goal of Measure 110 was to motivate people to engage in drug treatment programs and mirror the success of decriminalisation in Portugal, where there has been a 75 per cent drop in drug-related deaths between 2001 and 2022.

    But in Oregon, many believe the measure has failed.

    Fatal overdose deaths jumped from 280 in 2019 to 956 in 2022, and earlier this year state leaders declared a 90-day state of emergency in downtown Portland to address the public health and safety concerns brought on by the fentanyl epidemic.

    Officer Arnold said Measure 110 had presented major difficulties for police.

    "I've actually seen a couple of parents with an infant buy fentanyl from a dealer and then take turns smoking," he said.

    He said it was crazy to him that it was not immediately clear what law they were breaking.

    "In the past you would have said, 'OK, they're engaged in criminal activity with the kid,' but they were passing the kid to the other person, so they're not necessarily directly endangering the kid," he told 7.30.

    The streets themselves feel mostly deserted, with little foot traffic.

    Tents and makeshift camps are dotted on the sidewalks all over the city, often alongside expensive-looking bicycles, which police say are a popular thing to steal to buy drugs.

    Officer David Baer said Measure 110 stripped police of much of their power to directly tackle open drug use, with very few users contacting the health services listed on the drug screening cards they handed out.

    "We've cited people [many] days in a row," Officer Baer said.

    "But at the end of the day, we're just able to only write tickets. And I think that frustrates people."

    American horror story

    Officer Baer laments what has become of his hometown. He understands why people wanted Measure 110 but says it could not have come at a worse time than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when homelessness was on the rise.

    "It's tough to bring your kids downtown or your family downtown to go to dinner or see a show," he told 7.30.

    "The sidewalk is blocked because people are smoking drugs and they're acting erratically.

    "Measure 110 was written before fentanyl really took over. I don't think anyone was ready for how influential and addictive fentanyl was going to become."

    When Measure 110 was voted in, the major drugs of concern in Portland were crystal meth and heroin, but fentanyl has displaced both.

    The synthetic opioid is so cheap and addictive that users in Oregon are known to collect aluminium cans and trade them in at 10 cents each, with just five cans giving them enough for one pill.

    The rise in popularity and harm caused by fentanyl across the United States is extraordinary.

    Four years ago, 13 per cent of American overdose deaths were from fentanyl.

    By the end of 2023, it accounted for nearly three-quarters of overdose deaths.

    The state of Oregon saw the biggest proportional increase, with fentanyl deaths up more than 40 per cent in a year.

    Officer Baer said fentanyl's explosion in popularity in Portland coincided with an increase in violence, including gun crime.

    'Like an apocalypse'

    The increase in open drug use and associated crime has also upset many of downtown Portland's residents and business owners.

    Amy Nichols, the owner of The Cheerful Tortoise bar, said her business had been badly impacted.

    "When Measure 110 passed, with the drugs, it just became completely out of control," Ms Nichols told the ABC.

    "With a pandemic happening and everything shut down. Portland just became complete lawlessness.

    "Right now in Portland, you can't stand out [on the street] and drink a beer but you can go ahead and shoot heroin or smoke fentanyl, and it's fine.

    "It's like an apocalypse.

    "It's scary … walking around, you never know where you're going to step. There's needles everywhere."

    She said assaults on staff members and carjackings had driven good employees from returning.

    "I don't want to [do business here] anymore honestly," she said.

    "I'd love to be able to get out but after 26 years of hard work, I don't want to run from it. I'd like to stand up and try to make a difference."

    She's since decided to run for an elected position as commissioner of Clackamas County.

    "I know a lot of addicts in recovery and the one thing they all have is their rock-bottom story … you've got to hit rock bottom in order to get better," she said.

    "We just enable, that's all we do here … you're passing out straws and foils to do the drugs — that's not healthy to an addict."

    Returning from 'rock bottom'

    While Measure 110 has been treated as a failed experiment by some, it still has strong advocates in Portland.

    Joe Bazeghi, the director of engagement at Recovery Works NW, a drug treatment centre, said Measure 110 saw a 300 per cent increase in treatment capacity across the state.

    He is worried that its repeal will mark a return to other failed policies.

    "We've had 60 years of the war on drugs," Mr Bazeghi said.

    "We saw that people that were experiencing addictions were reticent to access treatment services and we anticipate that moving back into an era of criminal sanctions, that people will fear the systems that are set up to serve them."

    Brionna "Breezy" Brigham credits much of her recovery from decades of hard drug use to a rehab clinic funded by Measure 110.

    Her descent into fentanyl addiction began when she required shoulder surgery on a torn tendon at age 14.

    What began with prescribed post-op painkillers soon led to heroin, which led to meth, which then spiralled into fentanyl pills and powder.

    When she wasn't sleeping rough in downtown Portland, the 32-year-old was in and out of jail for drug possession.

    "My tolerance was completely capped out and soon enough I was doing as much fentanyl as I could possibly find," she told 7.30.

    "I found myself at rock bottom, like the loneliest, saddest, most depressed I've ever found myself, and I knew it was either that or death."

    When her twin sister — also a recovering addict — checked herself into a rehab centre, Breezy knew she was facing a life-or-death battle.

    "I have a lot of gratitude for being given a second chance," she said.

    "It [rehab] was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. You just want to die. It's the sickest you could ever imagine yourself."

    She said putting people in jail would not solve America's drug problem.

    "People living on the streets, they don't want to live like that," she told 7.30.

    "They want to be able to have a chance to come to some place safe and not detox on the streets, so they can make it through the other side.

    "I feel really strong this time around. I feel like I have a purpose again … and I just want to be successful, have a family — just the ultimate American dream."

    Measure 110 was effectively repealed by the Oregon congress earlier this year when it passed House Bill 4002 to recriminalise drug possession.

    A first offence won't result in jail time.

    Offenders will be put on probation and encouraged to seek treatment, but potential jail time will only kick in if someone violates their parole.

    Officer Baer said it was important there was an investment in resources to get people the help they needed.

    "The only thing that I've learned from this is if you're going to build a decriminalisation model, you actually have to build treatment centres … and build off-ramps for people from addiction before you just randomly decriminalise all drugs."

    The law changes in Oregon will be implemented on September 1, 2024.

    Watch 7.30, Mondays to Thursdays 7:30pm on ABC iview and ABC TV

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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