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Portland’s fentanyl crisis looks like Seattle’s, but approach veers

By Paige Cornwell, The Seattle Times
Published: February 26, 2024, 7:31am

SEATTLE — Last month, Oregon elected leaders declared a temporary state of emergency for downtown Portland, which has been among the hardest hit by the fentanyl crisis.

The 90-day emergency declaration, in part, directs city, county and state governments to closely work with first responders to connect those with fentanyl addictions to treatment, housing and other resources. Leaders pointed to rising rates of emergency-room visits for overdoses and accidental overdose deaths attributed to the synthetic opioid, and the effect the drug has had on public safety.

The effect of fentanyl in Portland mirrors that of the Seattle area. Here, too, skyrocketing rates of overdoses and deaths connected to fentanyl have thrown behavioral health and social services into chaos and created a sense of fear and disorder among residents since the now-widespread drug surfaced years ago.

Overdose death rates in King County increased by more than 1,000%, and Multnomah County, where Portland is located, increased by more than 500% from 2018 to 2022.

From September 2022 to September 2023, Oregon and Washington had the highest and second-highest, respectively, rise in rates of overdose deaths in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But in Seattle, city and state officials say they’re not discussing a state of emergency.

The tri-government response in Oregon is focused on Portland’s downtown area known as the central city, where concentrated efforts are supposed to help disrupt the fentanyl supply across the state, according to Multnomah County spokesman Ryan Yambra. Among the objectives of the declaration, he added, is to focus on a discrete area over three months and create a model that can be duplicated in other parts of the region and across the state.

“These efforts are not going to stop when the 90 days are over,” Multomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said during a meeting earlier this month.

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In Seattle, Mayor Bruce Harrell issued two executive orders last year related to policing and treatment.

The first order, in April, directed Seattle police to collaborate with state and federal law enforcement to target drug dealers and traffickers. As part of the order, the Seattle Fire Department launched an overdose-response team.

Washington and Oregon have grappled with their drug possession laws.

Oregon voters in 2020 passed a first-of-its-kind law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs, replacing criminal penalties with a fine. The measure also added an option for those with violations to have their charges dismissed if they went through a treatment screening. As of January, fewer than 10% of the cases had their charges dismissed, according to data from the Oregon Judicial Department.

Washington’s law that made drug possession a felony was deemed unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2021. The state Legislature last year passed a law that criminalizes public drug use as a gross misdemeanor, along with drug possession.

The Seattle City Council in September voted to allow the City Attorney’s Office to pursue gross misdemeanor charges for public drug use and possession. A second executive order from Harrell’s office directed Seattle police how to enforce the ordinance.

Harrell, meanwhile, has pointed to fentanyl as a public health issue that should be King County’s purview. Public Health — Seattle & King County is aware of Oregon’s emergency declaration and is staying up-to-date on the state’s approaches, according to spokeswoman Sharon Bogan.

“At the same time, the local context and needs should help drive the focus for each community,” Bogan wrote in an email.

Bogan cited the county’s continuing access to low-barrier treatment and expanding the availability of naloxone, the overdose-reversal medication. King County voters last year approved the Crisis Care Centers levy, which funds mental and behavioral health services. Those centers will likely take years to be fully operational.

At the state level, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed $64 million in his budget for funding for fentanyl-related programs, including health care, treatment and education.

The governor’s staff previously looked into state emergency orders for fentanyl and found there were no new resources that would have been available under such an action, according to governor’s office spokesman Mike Faulk.