The drawbacks of decriminalizing drugs are evident in Oregon.
“The last time I saw somebody consuming what I believe to be fentanyl publicly on our streets was less than five minutes ago, three blocks from City Hall,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said last week, shortly before the city council approved a ban on public drug use.
Portland’s new ban is subject to legislative approval. But it is the latest sign that decriminalization and the open use of dangerous substances are deleterious to a community. As The Columbian has written editorially on several occasions, elected officials must make it clear that illegal drugs remain illegal.
In that regard, officials in Washington can learn the abject lesson from their neighbor to the south. In 2020, Oregon voters approved Measure 110, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of controlled substances such as heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl.
The idea is to treat the use of dangerous drugs as a public health matter rather than a criminal matter; the reality is that few people believe the approach has been effective.
And that has an impact on our state. There inevitably is some leakage of problems from Portland to Clark County; Portland has become less inviting for visitors from this side of the river (and from elsewhere); and cities in Washington, particularly Seattle, also are struggling to develop appropriate drug policies.
They can learn from Wheeler’s observations about his city.
Last spring, the Portland mayor said: “What was sold to the voting public was, ‘Yes, we will decriminalize some personal amounts of drugs.’ But the main event was supposed to be the establishment of substance-use disorder treatment statewide, including a lot of it right here in the metro area. And here we are two years later, and we’ve seen the decriminalization of hard drugs, but we’re not seeing the treatment. It needs to happen, and it needs to happen urgently.
“And if it doesn’t happen, then we need to rethink the basic tenets of that ballot measure. If it’s not working, then let’s just admit it, and let’s move on to something that does.”
Part of that failure can be attributed to poor implementation; Oregon’s first treatment center funded with money from Measure 110 opened recently — more than two years after the ballot measure went into effect. But part of it can be attributed to a misguided idea.
Pointing that out, however, does not provide a solution for our nation’s drug problem, one that has been exacerbated by the fentanyl crisis. The inexpensive, readily available, highly dangerous synthetic opioid has made it more difficult for communities to address addictions. It has rapidly enhanced the need for improved treatment options and highlighted the need for law enforcement.
That creates a tenuous balance. People found in possession of illicit drugs should not be subjected to draconian criminal penalties, but the system is bereft of accountability without adequately funded and easily accessible treatment programs. “What we know across the board is that when treatment is voluntarily engaged with, outcomes are better,” one treatment specialist in Portland told news outlet Stateline.
Meanwhile, those who sell dangerous substances, profiting off the misery of others, should face severe punishment.
Elected officials in Portland, Vancouver, throughout Washington and elsewhere are struggling to find that proper balance. But at this point, it should be clear that widespread decriminalization is not an effective option.