Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler has reversed his decision to introduce a ban on public drug use, acknowledging that it would have violated state law.
The proposed policy aimed to criminalize the use of illicit drugs in public areas, with the intention of addressing public safety and health concerns associated with drug use.
Under current state law, the possession of a small amount of illicit drugs is a civil violation that results in a $100 fine.
“Use of illicit drugs in public spaces — especially dangerous and highly deadly substances like fentanyl — create significant public safety and public health issues in Portland,” Wheeler stated. “While Measure 110 has challenged the way cities across the state address drug use, I believe the City of Portland has an obligation to do what we can to protect our community now.”
However, the City is prohibited from implementing its own ban due to an existing state law that says a political subdivision in the state cannot adopt or enforce any local law or regulation that criminalizes “using cannabis or controlled substances in public.”
When asked how the proposed ban would comply with state law, a spokesperson for Wheeler stated that they were working to determine the best approach to reconcile the decades-old law with recent state statutes related to cannabis and controlled substances.
Wheeler acknowledged that his proposed ban would have faced legal challenges due to the state law and expressed his willingness to fight the issue in court, if necessary.
Wheeler now places his confidence in a new state bill, House Bill 2645, which addresses his concerns with Measure 110.
The legislation establishes possession of 1 gram or more or five or more pills of any fentanyl-containing substance as a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail or a $6,250 fine.
Wheeler believes the bill “restores the necessary law enforcement tools” emphasized in his proposed ban. However, it should be noted that the bill still allows the consumption of small amounts of fentanyl in public without criminal penalties, despite its potential lethality at even minuscule doses.
The rise in fentanyl overdose deaths in Oregon coincides with the implementation of Measure 110, which provides individuals the option to receive a fine or contact a hotline for substance abuse disorder screening when stopped for drug use in public.
Officials say the enforcement of this law has been slow in Portland compared to other law enforcement agencies, with fewer than 500 citations issued for drug possession under Measure 110 since February 2021.
Wheeler, who also serves as the City’s police commissioner, expressed optimism regarding future enforcement under the new bill, saying he expects “this change will positively impact the City of Portland by expanding local law enforcement’s abilities to make Portland safer and healthier.”
The announcement of the proposed drug ban last week drew mixed reactions. Some individuals working in substance abuse recovery programs noted that pushing drug use out of sight could hinder efforts to connect people with treatment. Conversely, others applauded the policy as a vital step toward enhancing livability in downtown Portland.
The Portland City Council, which was set to vote on the local drug ban policy, will now reconsider alternative measures in response to the legal constraints imposed by the state law.