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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Westneat: West Coast veering right

Portland, Seattle, others find good intentions not always good policy

By Danny Westneat
Published: May 6, 2024, 6:01am

We continue up and down the best coast this week, taking the temperature of Seattle’s sister cities. First stop is Portland, where the mood is … spent.

It’s fair to say no city has been more experimental in trying to tackle the homelessness and drug crises. From allowing tent camping in parks citywide at one point to decriminalizing drug use to passing higher income taxes for shelter, housing and homelessness services, Portland has over the past decade gone all in on the progressive project.

But like San Francisco, and to some extent Seattle, Portland is in retreat from that now.

Recently, the Portland mayor and city council advanced a ban on camping in the city — with possible jail time as a penalty.

“All it takes is one look at the situation on Portland streets to acknowledge that the status quo is not working,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said.

The proposed ordinance makes it illegal to camp on public property unless no shelter beds are available. Like Seattle, Portland has more people living outside than it has shelter beds, so this acknowledges there will still be camping around town. Pointedly, though, the ban applies if the person has “otherwise been offered and rejected reasonable alternate shelter.”

People choosing to stay in encampments, rather than go to shelter, has become a major sticking point. A few years ago, The Seattle Times profiled an encampment sweep where everyone living there was offered shelter, and no one took it.

In Portland they appear to be done with that. The ordinance, which was the softer of two being debated, threatens up to seven days in jail. It also bans camping on sidewalks, making fires in campsites, building structures, digging, or storing three or more bicycles at campsites — a sign Portland is sick of the theft rings that sometimes crop up in unauthorized camps.

So like San Francisco, which just voted to deny welfare benefits to recipients who fail drug tests, Portland suddenly seems to be vaulting to the right of Seattle politics in a search for answers.

Our other stop is up north, in British Columbia, where they are in month 15 of a three-year experiment on decriminalizing hard drugs. According to my opposite number at the Vancouver Sun, columnist Vaughn Palmer, there have been some “shocking,” unexpected consequences — namely the widespread use of fentanyl and other drugs in, of all places, hospitals.

A leaked hospital memo in the province suggested nurses should help patients use drugs in the hospital rooms, in pursuit of “harm reduction,” Palmer reported. “If patient has an IV, provide education on injecting into lines,” the memo instructed.

It caused an uproar. It felt to some Canadians that the well-meaning goal of decriminalization — to remove drug addiction issues from jails — had morphed into letting people use drugs anywhere and everywhere.

My view is the through line in all these West Coast progressive failures — yes, failures — isn’t that the big-picture theory was wrong. Progressives are right that criminalizing homelessness or drug addiction is dumb and usually counterproductive.

But it also ought to be obvious by now that society can’t leap straight from red light all the way to full-on green. It’s not OK to build a plywood shack in a city park, any more than it is to smoke fentanyl on the bus or in a hospital room. It’s also not OK to refuse shelter and camp outside for years.

There’s got to be a middle space, where cities can still set rules and expectations without criminalizing the underlying poverty or addiction.

Portugal is often credited for at least semisuccessfully decriminalizing drugs. But they explicitly did not create an atmosphere of anything goes. People caught with drugs in Portugal aren’t sent to criminal courts, but they’re given a summons to go before a “drug dissuasion” group with a doctor, a social worker and a legal expert. That group guides a treatment program and can impose penalties, from fines to revoking licenses to even bans on travel.

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It’s no war on drugs. But it’s also not advising you how to inject drugs into your bedside IV line.

What has happened in the West Coast cities, over and over, is that we half-assed it. We did the ideological part first, and either ignored the make-it-work part or left it for later. Just as Seattle learned ruefully that you can’t defund police without first setting up public safety alternatives, Oregon found it’s self-defeating to decriminalize drugs without first setting up a robust treatment system.

And so now the retreat is on, up and down the coast. Hopefully, as the pendulum swings back to the right, it won’t swing too far.

If West Coast cities have learned anything from the upheaval of the past five years, it ought to be that the worst public policy mistakes, the kind you later have to embarrassingly unwind, happen when the pendulum really gets to swinging.