PORTLAND, Ore. – City leaders say they’ve been hamstrung when it comes to cleaning up Portland’s streets and are calling on legislators to help in the upcoming legislative session.
“It is extremely frustrating for us to take the steps that we believe, and, frankly, that we know we need to take as a municipal government to address open drug use or to address addiction or to address unsanctioned, dangerous and squalid camps in our community,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “And yet we don’t have all of the tools we need at the municipal level to be able to get done what we need to have done.”
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The Portland City Council has passed two main ordinances addressing drug use and homeless camps in the last year that promptly hit road blocks.
Commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance banning public drug use in September, but noted that the law couldn’t go into effect until state lawmakers pass legislation allowing them to enforce it.
“It is insane,” said Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who is running to succeed Wheeler as mayor. “The city of Portland can make rules about where you can smoke a cigarette, but I cannot make any binding rules about where you smoke fentanyl. That is part of the reason why Portland looks the way it does, and that needs to change.”
The council also passed an ordinance last June banning people from blocking access to Portland businesses or sidewalks with tents from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. But the Oregon Law Center sued, alleging the restrictions violate the state constitution and existing laws, and a circuit court judge blocked the city from enforcing the ban.
“We’re going to end up winning this challenge,” Commissioner Dan Ryan said. “Because the fact is, we need to provide services for people who are on the streets during the day, and we need to free up our public right of way.”
The Oregon Law Center is also behind the upcoming Supreme Court case over how local governments can respond to homeless people camping on public property.
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Oregon lawmakers will meet for a short legislative session beginning Feb. 5. Their biggest agenda item is likely to be reforming Measure 110, the voter-approved law that decriminalized possession of small amounts of all drugs.
Drug possession is currently a Class E violation in the state and police can cite offenders with a $100 ticket, which can be waived if the suspect calls a hotline to complete a treatment assessment. Almost no one calls the hotline or pays the fine, and open-air drug use and overdoses have surged in areas like Portland.
Several polls show Oregonians favor re-criminalizing hard drugs and making treatment required, not voluntary, as a jail alternative.
Both Mapps and Ryan called reform a “common sense” move.
“Oregonians are not happy with how [Measure 110 has] been implemented,” Ryan said. “It’s our job as legislators and public servants to listen to that and admit that we have to roll it out with some improvement.”
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Lawmakers on the Democrat-controlled Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response have proposed making drug possession a Class C misdemeanor — the state’s lowest crime classification — punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $1,250 fine, or both.
Oregon Republicans want to make possession of drugs like fentanyl, heroin and meth a Class A misdemeanor and require treatment to avoid jail. If convicted, drug users could face up to a year in jail, a $6,250 fine, or both under their proposal.
Lawmakers will have just 35 days to come to an agreement once the special session begins next month.
Wheeler said he needs Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, the legislature and county government to work with the city, even if that means changing their views on homeless camp sweeps and drug policy.
“If they really want to see this community improve the way it needs to improve, they need to get into line with what this city council is doing,” he said. “We’re unified as a city council … but if the courts and the legislature, and other political players in this state who hold sway over what we do continue to block us, it makes our job all that much harder.”
“We’ll work around them. We’ll find other solutions,” he added. “But it would be great if we could all get on the same page.”
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Wheeler has presided over some of Portland’s most difficult years in recent history. The city suffered massive economic losses during the coronavirus pandemic and, nearly four years later, downtown foot traffic still has not fully returned.
Protests and destructive riots seized the city for more than 100 consecutive nights after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Homicides hit a record high, homelessness continued to soar and open-air drug use became commonplace.
The mayor told Fox News he was “happy to say we’re making really good progress” on public safety and livability issues. Homicides and shootings dropped dramatically last year. Assaults and car thefts also decreased in 2023, according to Portland Police Bureau data.
“We’ve hired more police officers, we’ve expanded patrols, we’ve put foot patrols back into the central city,” Wheeler said.
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And while PPB continues to suffer from staffing shortages, the city council has “funded private sector security in particular hot spots,” according to the mayor.
To hear more from Portland’s city leaders, click here.