A few weeks ago, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, Ted Wheeler, made a stand on open-air drug abuse in the city. He had had enough — it was time for action! Wheeler announced he would force the city council to vote on an ordinance banning the consumption of illicit substances — including fentanyl — on Portland’s blighted streets. Finally, Portland was ready to fight back.
Wheeler withdrew his proposal five days later without a vote.
Of course, Wheeler’s office claimed he withdrew the proposed ordinance due to a state bill forwarded to the desk of Democrat Gov. Tina Kotek that would have accomplished the same goals.
Then again, the threat of lawsuits and running afoul of existing state law may also have had something to do with it.
The proposed ordinance would have updated city code to include “consumption of a controlled substance” to its existing ban on public consumption of alcohol. By banning consumption, and not possession, Wheeler had hoped his proposal would not face a challenge under Measure 110, the statewide constitutional amendment passed in 2021 that decriminalized the possession of illicit street drugs such as cocaine, meth, and fentanyl.
The not-so-shocking result of Measure 110 has been that overdoses, rates of addiction, and mental health crises have skyrocketed, while the intended incentives in the measure for users to seek treatment have gone virtually completely ignored.
Patrick Fletchall recently wrote a great breakdown of the results of Measure 110 in The Federalist. He notes Wheeler’s history of taking bold stands that he later comes to regret — particularly in terms of backing the “defund the police” movement.
Measure 110 was not the only legal hurdle Wheeler faced, which may be why he withdrew the proposal. He claimed a pending bill, House Bill 2645, made his proposal unnecessary. The bill, which passed the state legislature on June 22, still sits on Kotek’s desk awaiting signature.
As has become his habit, Wheeler spoke out of both sides of his mouth. He blamed everything from the Republican walkout to deny the state Senate quorum, to staffing levels at the Portland Police Bureau, to a “loophole” in Measure 110. In praising the passage of the “high priority for Portland” HB 2645, Wheeler gave a strong impression of retconning (retroactively conditioning) his excuse for withdrawing his ordinance before the council vote.
Wheeler talked tough about his proposal:
The mayor claimed that he was willing to take challenges to his ordinance to court adding, ‘I planned to propose an amendment to City Code in Portland that would prohibit the consumption of a controlled substance in public spaces, hoping to address a loophole in Measure 110. This ordinance would have undoubtedly been challenged because of a state statute potentially limiting the authority of local governments to create laws regarding the public use of drugs. Nonetheless, I was willing to take that fight to the courts, if necessary.’
Did you catch that last bit? State law forbids cities from taking the action Wheeler proposed. As Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reported:
“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 said Tuesday. “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.”
An older state law bars the city from creating its own ban. The decades-old law explicitly states that “a political subdivision in this state shall not adopt or enforce any local law or regulation” that makes “using cannabis or controlled substances in public” a crime.
OPB asked Wheeler’s office Thursday how his proposed ban would be allowed under the state law. On Friday evening, a spokesperson for the mayor wrote that “this statute is on our radar… We are working to determine the best mechanism to bring clarity around how this statute interacts with more recent state statutes related to cannabis and controlled substances.”
At this juncture, readers will undoubtedly note that it took the mayor’s office three days to address the conflict with existing state law. Then, by the fifth day, they found the HB 2645 excuse and announced the withdrawal of the proposal.
As OPB reported, HB 2645 does not criminalize the possession — or consumption — of small amounts of fentanyl. Wheeler also blames state law for not providing cities with the tools to crack down on drug use on city streets. He gives vague assurances that HB 2645, if signed, will “positively impact the City of Portland by expanding local law enforcement’s abilities to make Portland safer and healthier.” Yet, OPB reports:
Fentanyl overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Oregon, and across the country, in recent years as the drug has become cheaper and more accessible. This increase has coincided with the rollout of Measure 110, which gives people the option of receiving a fine or calling a hotline to be screened for substance abuse disorder if they’re stopped for using drugs in public. Portland police have been slow to enforce this new law in comparison to other law enforcement agencies. Portland police have issued less than 500 citations for drug possession under Measure 110 since February 2021.
That failure to enforce has exactly nothing to do with state law. It has everything to do with city policy calling for the defunding of police and redirecting resources over which it has exclusive control, along with drug users having no reason to want to take advantage of treatment plans.
This is an all-too-familiar pattern for Wheeler: Say all the stuff the radical activists say, like ending the war on drugs and defunding the police. Then cast about for others to blame when those policies lead to the rotting out of the downtown Portland core and leave streets teeming with homeless and drug-addicted zombies.