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To some residents, tourists and conservative pundits, Portland, Oregon, feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Sprawling tent encampments blight the city. Panhandlers harangue restaurant patrons. Trash and human excrement line the sidewalks in newly dodgy neighborhoods where drug users shoot heroin and smoke fentanyl out in the open.
This isn’t the City of Roses that flourished in the aughts. Portland was once known mostly as a progressive Eden of bespoke coffee shops, vegan bakeries, farm-to-table restaurants and quirky hipsters aptly caricatured in the Emmy-nominated comedy “Portlandia.” But over the past three years, the murder rate has skyrocketed and the short-staffed police department’s response to entire categories of crime, from DUIs to burglaries, has plummeted. The court system is so overburdened that Mike Schmidt, the district attorney of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, publishes a list of cases that judges now routinely dismiss, including property crimes and human trafficking, because there aren’t enough public defenders.
On a recent walk near his office, Schmidt encountered five different people openly smoking hard drugs from a piece of foil or a glass pipe. “Drug use is visible on the streets in ways we’ve never seen before,” he told me. “It used to be underground.”
Schmidt was elected in May 2020, promising to reform the criminal justice system by making it fairer and more effective. The COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to upend the city, though, and the resulting economic crisis exacerbated already soaring housing costs and fueled increases in opioid addiction and homelessness. Meanwhile, antifa activists and Proud Boy agitators co-opted the racial justice protests that began that summer, demoralizing a Portland Police Bureau that has seen its rank and file leave in droves.
Portland isn’t the only American city grappling with these problems. But the scenes of rampant drug use here and across the state have armed critics with an easy, only-in-Oregon scapegoat: a groundbreaking new drug-decriminalization law called Measure 110 that Schmidt and other progressives championed. After months of intense fundraising, advocacy and debate, Oregonians approved it in November 2020 with 58% of the vote, at the close of a year in which drug overdose deaths shot up by 70%.
Proponents hailed Measure 110 as a critical first step toward alleviating the suffering of those battling addiction and repairing the damage of an unwinnable drug war that has broken apart families and cost billions of tax dollars. The measure decriminalized all drugs, including heroin, crack, meth and fentanyl. In place of harsh enforcement by an already overstretched police force would be a small fine and the promise of a more humane approach. The law would provide more treatment centers, counseling, rehab and even housing, along with needle-exchange programs and drugs that can reverse overdoses. It was a bold package put forth by a coalition of nonprofit leaders and liberal politicians who billed their vision as “a better Oregon.”
Just two years later, the law’s opponents wanted to try to strip its funding or repeal the bill entirely. They claim that Measure 110 is an abject failure and a reality check on the pitfalls of drug decriminalization.
But are they right?
A 90-minute drive east from Portland, in an old cowboy town called The Dalles, August “Jim” Law is slumped on a faded, cream-colored couch inside the Wasco County office of Bridges to Change, an Oregon nonprofit that helps those recovering from drug addiction find housing and other services. His one good eye drifts shut; the other doesn’t open.
“Shingles,” Law grunts when I ask what happened to the bad eye. Then he nods off. He’s 66 but could pass for 80.
Law has had a rough night, says Larry Dorr, a friend who brought him into the Bridges to Change office on a bitterly cold Monday morning in January. Over the weekend, Law was robbed at gunpoint and lost everything he owned, including the travel trailer he called home. Now, he is disoriented and can blurt out only a few words to describe what happened, and not in a way that makes much sense. But the details are irrelevant to the small beehive of cheerful workers buzzing from one end of the office to the next, printing forms they’ll fill out on Law’s behalf so he can obtain a new Oregon identification card — one that’ll replace what had been his only ID, the one he received two years ago when he left the state penitentiary.
After Law’s last arrest in 2015, he did an 80-month stint behind bars, which in today’s dollars would cost taxpayers about $300,000, based on data released by the Oregon Department of Corrections. His crime: possession of a $20 bag of methamphetamine, the drug that has kept hold of him for most of his adult life. It’s the reason he got shingles, the reason for his homelessness and the reason for a fall that rendered his left arm useless.
“I had tools. I had a life. I had a cat,” Law says. “I live in America.”
Dorr, who is 16 years younger than Law and a longtime meth user, is in much better shape. The two men are different people in any number of ways, but there’s one key difference in the trajectory of their lives. When Law was caught with meth, he did real time. When Dorr got pulled over with half an ounce of the same drug in his truck in February 2021, Measure 110 had just become law. Thanks to that timing, Dorr’s consequences for substantially more meth led to a $100 citation and no criminal penalty. He kept his $50-an-hour union job paving asphalt. He did no new time.
Seeing the two men seated next to each other in the same office — one barely able to utter a sentence, the other chatting breathlessly about how God told him it was time to settle down — reveals what Measure 110’s critics struggle to see. The law helps people by not arresting them, by not sending them to jail, by not branding them with a criminal record. Those who get to go on living normal lives because they’re not tied up by the justice system are invisible in a way that the ones smoking meth on the streets of downtown Portland certainly aren’t. So is Jim Law, to most people, as he finally begins to get the help he needs behind closed doors.
The most immediate and sensational effect of Measure 110 was to stop police from arresting people for small amounts of any drug. But Measure 110 also came with substantial funding for treatment and assistance for a small state like Oregon: $302 million over two years, five times what the state had previously spent in this area, siphoned from bulging tax revenues from cannabis sales. Bureaucratic dithering and a slow allotment process at the agency charged with distributing the money kept organizations like Bridges to Change from launching new services until 2022. But by the middle of last year, the money was going where it was intended. Treatment beds, outreach workers and overdose-reversing drugs are becoming available, in The Dalles and elsewhere in Oregon, with more programs on the way. Some nonprofits had been on the brink of closure until Measure 110 funding kicked in. Now the state is looking at the biggest expansion of treatment capacities in its history and a dramatic reduction in wait times for those who need help.
This outcome, however, is far from certain. If homelessness and petty crime continue running rampant on the streets of Oregon, the argument even among well-meaning critics goes, maybe the law should be tweaked — by recriminalizing fentanyl, for example. Maybe the hundreds of millions of dollars now finally moving from tax revenue into nonprofits should be redirected. If that happened, though, Measure 110 would fail — sending a dire message to other states that might be considering ending their own wars on drugs. The people helping Law in The Dalles would lose their jobs, and a man who clearly cannot fend for himself would be left to do that all over again.
The small Bridges to Change office lies inconspicuously on a side street in the downtown area of The Dalles, which is bustling with new energy. With nearby Hood River a beacon for wealthy outdoor enthusiasts and house prices at incredible highs, The Dalles is poised to capture the next generation of city-fleeing kiteboarders, windsurfers, mountain bikers and skiers, even as that means higher costs for everything, especially housing. In the past few years, The Dalles has seen the opening of cannabis dispensaries, yoga studios and breweries. But this belies the hardship now ingrained here and across Oregon, as the state finds itself in the throes of twin crises: homelessness and drug abuse.
Martin Rivas and Ruby Arguello see a side of The Dalles that its wealthy windsurfers don’t. He’s a 30-year-old Latino who moved to the gorge from California as a child and struggled to fit in; she’s white, a lifelong resident of the city who is twice his age and has two more years of sobriety. What they have in common is their former drug of choice: methamphetamine. Rivas and Arguello may have come from entirely different places, but the draw to the euphoria-inducing upper was the same. “It made me feel good,” Rivas says.
On the same day that Law and Dorr walked into the Bridges to Change office, Rivas and Arguello piled into a van and hit the streets for an outreach effort funded by Measure 110. They’re the only team doing this work in the five counties in which Bridges to Change operates, but four more teams are coming, thanks to the law’s new funding. Before Measure 110, with Bridges to Change itself on the verge of closing, the two caseworkers were bracing for unemployment.
En route to a tent Arguello had spotted earlier in a parking lot near some train tracks, she sees a teenage girl whom she knows has an addiction to fentanyl, the powerful opioid that has become a deadly substitute for heroin. “They’re all doing the blues now,” she says, using slang for the pills. “Leaving heroin, meth, just to do that. It lasts longer. It’s really sad.”
At the tent, the pair wake up Jay and Shauna Ruddell, 40 and 48, who are brother and sister. Shauna is missing many of her teeth and shivers beneath a thin sleeping bag in tattered old clothes. Jay is out of sight, deeper in the two-person tent, which is the only home the siblings know. A moat of urine has collected at the edge of it. There’s a wheelchair parked outside the entrance.
“Hello, good morning. Anybody home?” Rivas asks. “Waking you up? Sorry! We’re just mainly here if you need us to bring you anything.”
Arguello collects their names, while Rivas scampers to the van for supplies. “You guys like fruit? We got canned fruit with the popper tops. You don’t need a can opener,” he says warmly. “Where you guys from?”
“Here,” Shauna says, her breath visible in the freezing air. “We’re trying to get help. It’s just so hard.”
She wipes tears from her cheeks and continues. “My brother’s got one leg. We tried everywhere. They told us to move this [tent]. I don’t know where to move it. I don’t know where to go. My brother’s handicapped. I’m just one person. I get him up, go down to the community meals, push him back here, but I’m afraid we’re going to come back and our tent will be gone.”
Arguello comforts her, while Rivas shovels food and supplies into the small opening of the tent: socks, blankets, doughnuts, bags of tortilla chips. Shauna pulls everything inside. She’s grateful but continues to worry. She’s hungry and wants a shower, yet she’s anxious about someone stealing her tent. “Hey, if something happens with your tent when you guys leave, just come to the office and I’ll have a tent for you,” Rivas says, reassuring her.
Shauna says she hasn’t done drugs for 21 years. “I almost died, watched my daughter cry, ‘Mama, if you don’t stop, you’ll never see me or your grandbabies again.’ I pulled my head out of my ass and got clean.”
Jay insists he’s not using, either: “I just woke up one day and decided don’t do it.”
Rivas doesn’t believe them, but he knows better than to challenge their story. Addiction isn’t like other health ailments. When someone’s sick with a stigma-free disease, like the flu, they go to the doctor. With drugs, many are ashamed to admit they have a problem. They’re afraid to ask for help, and a major reason is that drug use is illegal and stigmatized.
Most addicts go to treatment when they’re ready to go to treatment, Rivas says. The best way to help them is to be there, build trust and be ready when they are. Right now, Rivas says, the waiting list for a referral to treatment is weeks long, which makes it nearly impossible to help addicts in the short window in which they might muster the resolve to get clean. Once Measure 110’s treatment programs are fully up and running and the state’s facilities expand, wait times should drop. This is vital, Rivas says: “If you miss that window, you might never hear from them again.”
Before his fatal overdose at age 24, whenever Maxwell Pinsky got in trouble with the law, the justice system branded him a criminal, not an addict in need of help. That meant that the police would lock him in jail — he was arrested multiple times — before eventually tumbling him out into the street again, sometimes at 3 a.m. The criminal justice system provided him with stigma and disdain instead of resources to treat his problem.
After Max died, his mother, Julia, became obsessed with a series of “what ifs.” Foremost among them: What if she had had a supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone?
In 2016, two years after her son’s death, Julia founded Max’s Mission, a nonprofit that distributes naloxone to anyone who might need it. Julia and her husband, David, had tried everything they could to fight Max’s heroin addiction, but his spiral had played out more like a bungee jump than a slow descent. He quickly became unreachable, uninterested in help. If he’d stayed alive, he’d have had more time for things to change, Julia says. That’s what naloxone does.
Where organizations like Bridges to Change offer a broad range of services, Max’s Mission focuses on keeping drug users safe, however they can. Early on, for example, Julia realized that providing treatment in a static location didn’t work. Many drug users prefer to shoot up, snort and smoke in the privacy of their homes, whatever that home may be. “We felt like we needed to meet drug users directly where they are,” she said. “People are literally living in tunnels underground. In ditches.”
When Max’s Mission started, Julia says, “if you weren’t in a clinic, you weren’t going to get [naloxone].” At first, it was only Julia and David bagging up the bottles of the nasal spray. Now, after receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Measure 110 funds last summer, Max’s Mission employs a dozen workers in three counties, distributing not just naloxone but clean needles, fentanyl test strips, Goodwill vouchers and clothing. Across the state, other organizations are now widely distributing naloxone as well.
Every intervention, every point of contact, every foiled overdose offers an addict a new opportunity to get clean, without the baggage, stigma and sometimes lifelong consequences of an arrest or an arrest record. While a night or even a dozen nights in jail is a detox of sorts, when people get out, they’re branded with a scarlet letter that prevents them from qualifying for many kinds of housing and jobs. Often, the instability, poverty and homelessness that ensue only inspire them to use again.
Had Measure 110 passed before Max’s death, Julia believes her son might be alive today. “There’s a lot less stigma, a lot more work with peers who help people turn their lives around,” she says. This work is a major benefit of Measure 110 that many critics overlook. As Julia puts it, “Last month in Jackson County alone we had 47 overdose reversals. No one who’s dead has ever walked into recovery.”
In 2022, there were no fewer than three legislative attempts to strip funding from Measure 110 and redirect up to $120 million of additional funding to law enforcement. Those bills were ultimately defeated, but new threats loom this year. One proposed bill would move Measure 110 money to cities and county governments to spend as they wish as well as to police. Another would repeal the decriminalization part of the law and begin sending addicts back to prison. A third would repeal the law entirely. At the moment, all three of these bills are going nowhere, but with each new spike in overdose deaths and each new open-air drug market popping up in cities like Portland comes a new threat that the law will be scapegoated once again.
Most of Measure 110’s advocates admit the law’s rollout hasn’t gone smoothly. With a hyperfocus on the first phases of ending the drug war — immediate decriminalization and funding for harm reduction efforts, such as needle exchanges and naloxone — it was always going to be the case that the measure’s third key element, expanding treatment, would take longer to implement. Energized by the prospect of social change, advocates didn’t focus enough on the massive demand for care across the state. No one adequately anticipated the slow pace of government bureaucracy and what was required to carry out such an overhaul. The result was that the bulk of that initial rollout of funds went to harm reduction measures, while the rest has been delayed for two years, thanks in part to the state’s slow review of hundreds of applications for funding from organizations in Oregon’s 36 counties. (The Oregon Health Authority did not respond to several requests for comment.)
Funding delays have a palpable effect on the agencies working in drug treatment. Medford-based OnTrack Rogue Valley offers treatment services across southern Oregon and has 50 beds available. There’s a waitlist for treatment, and there are more than 100 people on that list at any given time, says Sommer Wolcott, the organization’s executive director.
“People’s perceptions of what they were voting for don’t align with what was funded,” Wolcott says. “Our goal is to actually help people stop using drugs — to be able to live healthy lives.”
Ben Randolph understands that goal, but he says keeping drugs illegal is the best way to get there. In the 1980s and ’90s, he was “your stereotypical meth addict,” he says, cooking and dealing the drug in rural areas near Portland. But when his parents called Child Protective Services on him, he finally decided to get clean, rather than risk being charged with mistreating his two young children. Randolph went back to school, earned a master’s degree, became a drug and alcohol counselor, and then opened a detox center in Portland called Oregon Trail.
“If you’d decriminalized my behavior,” Randolph says, “I’d be dead or in the penitentiary right now.”
As overdose deaths in Oregon continue to spike — 548 died from opioid overdoses in 2022, up from 462 the year before — the new law has removed even the possibility of addicts drying out in jail. On top of that, Randolph and other critics say, even the nominal penalty the law left behind to push addicts toward treatment has been ineffective. Under the new system, anyone caught with an illegal drug now is slapped with a $100 fine — which can be waived if they simply call a treatment hotline and finish an assessment. They don’t even have to show up when — and if — treatment becomes available. Of the more than 2,500 tickets written for drug possession since the measure became law, only 116 people called the hotline, and only 20 of them sought treatment.
“The system,” Randolph says, “is broken.”
Other opponents point to the proliferating homeless camps, overdose deaths, the rising murder rate, even the rash of catalytic converter thefts in cars as incontrovertible evidence that Oregon’s experiment is a disaster. Jeff Eager, a political consultant and the former mayor of Bend, Oregon, wants to keep the Measure 110 funding for drug treatment but to throw out much of the rest of the bill because “the harm that hard drug use is doing in Oregon has only magnified.”
As he put it in an article in The National Review: “The fact that Oregon’s hard-drug decriminalization is failing should be a warning to other states considering a similar approach.”
Supporters of the law had hoped Measure 110 would put Oregon on par with Portugal, which advocates tout as the premier model for a more humane drug policy. There are good reasons to champion the Portuguese experiment, which helped bring an HIV epidemic under control, says Keith Humphreys, a professor at Stanford University and former White House adviser in the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
But there are key differences between how Portugal changed its drug laws and what’s happening in Oregon. Portugal had a robust treatment network in place long before it decriminalized drugs; Oregon ranks last in the nation for access to treatment. Family structures are stronger in Portugal, so there’s more community pressure than in Oregon to push drug users to get help. There’s better access to public health care, too, especially when it comes to mental health. And there are stronger incentives for treatment. While drug use is decriminalized in Portugal, the replacement isn’t an easy-to-dodge citation but a mandatory appearance before a commission of addiction experts, who assess the user to determine whether to sign them up for compulsory treatment. No such system exists in Oregon, and that’s a problem, says Humphreys: “We’ve got to fix this.”
Humphreys doesn’t want to see Measure 110 repealed. Instead, he says, the state should address the law’s shortcomings. In testimony before the Oregon Legislature in September 2021, he warned that Oregonians shouldn’t be surprised to see the “extensive drug use, extensive addiction and not much treatment-seeking” that now afflicts the state. The response should include more law enforcement, especially of open-air drug markets and those drug crimes that remain illegal, he says.
The stakes of this fight extend far beyond Oregon. The state has long stood at the forefront of the national effort to roll back the war on drugs; it fully sanctioned recreational marijuana in 2016 and therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms four years later. Other states are watching Oregon’s experiment, and the wrong story about what’s happening here could either damage efforts to repeal the war on drugs across America or inspire more policies that would declare tens of thousands of people who are suffering beyond repair. “People could just say the police shouldn’t do anything, that no one should do anything, and users can have the freedom to go under a bridge, inject themselves with a drug and die. There’s a big chunk of the country that would love to give up on this problem,” Humphreys says. “The risk here is of people becoming self-righteous about giving up.”
A closer look at the statistics shows that it’s impossible to tie Measure 110 to spikes in crime, drug use and homelessness in Oregon. Last year, the research firm RTI International analyzed 911 call data from January 2018 to July 2022 in Portland; Seattle, Washington; Boise, Idaho; and Sacramento, California. In all four cities, for calls about property crimes, disorderly conduct and reports of drugs, alcohol, prostitution and gambling, Portland was no worse off — and in many cases better — than its counterparts. Homelessness, substance abuse, murder and other crimes all rose steadily with the pandemic, everywhere in America.
Declaring Measure 110 a “failure” based on specious attempts to correlate the law’s passage with crime rates is foolish, says John Hummel, a former district attorney of central Oregon’s Deschutes County. He campaigned for the law and says it “was baked into 110 that the penalties would stop before money got into communities to beef up treatment.” Now, government agencies and nonprofits need more time to roll out the law’s treatment phase.
As for skeptics like Oregon Trail’s Randolph, who argue that jail is a necessary incentive for treatment, Hummel disagrees. Most of the crimes that are now routinely attributed to Measure 110 are still crimes. Randolph didn’t nearly lose his children because he was quietly smoking meth in his own home. He was dealing it and charged with child endangerment, both of which are still against the law. So are open-air drug markets, alongside all the petty crime and burglaries committed in the hunt for quick cash to buy drugs. The prison-to-redemption saga is an outlier.
“For everyone arrested and coerced into treatment, living a successful life and in recovery,” Hummel says, “I can give you thousands of people whose arrest put them into a spiral they haven’t escaped.”
Schmidt, the district attorney in Portland, suggests the law has begun to help Oregonians recognize that addiction is a health issue, not a criminal one. This is a victory to build on. “People’s minds and attitudes are shifting about how to handle addiction and substance use disorder,” Schmidt says. “I talk to police officers all the time, and they agree we can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
Portland’s surging crime rate understandably leads officers in an understaffed police department to stop writing citations for drug possession at all, even as users are smoking and shooting up on the sidewalk, Schmidt says. “It’s a fair argument, with limited police officers and a queue of people waiting for you to come assist them with burglaries and robberies.”
But he stresses the need for patience. Dozens of programs are now up and running across Oregon. Local, regional and state players increasingly understand the need to work together. And there’s more money coming. In addition to the $302 million already allotted, the state is set to receive approximately $700 million from a settlement with companies that produced and distributed prescription opioids, which will fund efforts to fight the opioid epidemic.
It could be years before all of this changes the way the streets feel to many in Portland and other Oregon cities and towns. But “these dollars are hitting our communities and having a positive impact,” Schmidt says. “Organizations are staffing up, building buildings and infrastructure. All these things take time. We need to stay the course.”
A week after his arrival at Bridges to Change, Law is still homeless. But he has a new tent, a sleeping bag, a tarp, a poncho, hand warmers and blankets, all supplied by the agency, and Rivas is working to qualify him for Social Security benefits that would cover him staying in a sober house, which is also run by the agency. Bridges to Change is using its most recent chunk of funding to open 202 new housing beds in four Oregon counties and hire 67 new staffers.
Law’s buddy, Dorr, is also living in Bridges to Change housing, and he has permission from his parole officer to take construction jobs out of the county, even though that means he’ll sometimes miss mandatory weekly check-ins.
This is incremental but real progress, says Bridges to Change’s executive director, Monta Knudson. He notes that there are 12,000 prison beds in the state of Oregon, more than 8,000 inmates locked up for drug-related crimes and only 300 beds in total for the prison system’s treatment centers. Like many who work in the field, Knudson experienced the ineptitude of this system himself: By age 14, he was addicted to crack cocaine and, over the next 16 years, he’d racked up 25 arrests and a decade behind bars. “In all those years incarcerated, I was never addressing my addiction issues. I was just sitting in prison,” he says.
The last time he got out, in 2005, Knudson was released into treatment in a recovery house as opposed to simply being pushed out into the streets. Now he runs one of the state’s most effective solutions to its most daunting, complex problem, and he worries that declaring Measure 110 a failure could mean funding for programs like his is stripped away, which would “collapse an already fractured system.” Undoing 100 years of damage from the war on drugs with an entirely new approach, he says, “is a long game.”
On yet another frigid day in January, Law is dressed in a torn Carhartt jacket and untied Dr. Martens, fumbling for the handle of the sliding door that opens the Bridges to Change van that will ferry him to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a new ID. Once he has it open, he slides one knee and then the other into the van’s cavernous interior, knocking his head on the ceiling on the way in before crawling to the seat. He nods off. But as the van veers onto Interstate 84 and into a rare burst of winter sunlight, snow-capped Mount Hood comes into clearer view behind him. Law opens his good eye.
“Beautiful day, huh?” he says. “I think I live in the prettiest place on earth.”
This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.
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