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Portland: A Laboratory Experiment on Progressive Politics

Naomi Schaefer Riley at City Journal

Photo by Janne Simoes / Unsplash
Localism and the Importance of Laboratories
If give localities self-determination, it results in a country full of mini-laboratories where can figure out what works and what doesn’t. Granted, in the localities that practice oppression and hatred, things will be miserable, but at least people can leave. If enough people leave, the people who stay behind will

I’m standing outside the Central Police Precinct in downtown Portland, Oregon. Officer Eli Arnold and I have bicycled over to meet two of his colleagues, returned from a drug bust. We examine the proceeds of the crime on the hood of a squad car. The officers weigh the fentanyl powder on a small scale, record the amounts, and take out a few bags of pills to show me. A pill falls to the ground; one of the officers rushes to return it to the bag.

Fentanyl is easy to lose. Arnold, with the Portland cops for six years, tells me that addicts can take more than 20 pills a day to feed their addiction—unlike, say, people using heroin or cocaine, where a few hits daily will sustain them. For addicts, with minds already impaired, the likelihood that a tiny pill will drop on the floor and roll under a table without being noticed is high. That’s how kids find them, think they’re candy, and eat them.

Portland recorded 137 fatal overdoses in the first half of 2023, compared with 2022’s 12-month total of 155. Within a single ten-day period, three children under the age of four had overdosed and died after coming into contact with what the police said was fentanyl, “left unsecured in their homes.” Nonfatal overdoses also seem to be rising among kids, at least according to one social worker at a local hospital. He recently saw a three-year-old who had ingested fentanyl. Emergency responders were too late in administering Narcan, and the boy is now permanently outfitted with a tracheal tube. Of the 358 fentanyl cases that the Oregon Poison Control Center handled in 2022 (a 220 percent increase from 2021), 46 were pediatric.

It’s not just the pills. Fentanyl fumes can harm children (and adults), as can touching the foil where it gets cooked. Kevin Dahlgren, who does homeless outreach in Portland, recently encountered a mother and her young child playing with fentanyl foil. “I told her not to let him play with that. It’s no different from ‘don’t play with a needle.’ ” Terrance Moses, founder of the homeless-outreach group Neighbors Helping Neighbors PDX, says that he has to wash his clothes after entering the homeless encampments—the fumes stay on you. In certain camps, he dons a hazmat suit.

Children live in these grim places; no one knows how many. But Moses has seen their faces peeking out of tents. “I mean infants, all the way up to high school. At first, [the parents] are standoffish,” he says. “They hide their kids because they don’t want to be reported.”

Moses, an African American army veteran who moved to Portland from Philadelphia almost three decades ago, started working with the homeless in 2016, initially helping them to dispose of their trash. Then he started bringing hygiene kits. Seven years ago, he mostly dealt with adult men, including many vets. But in the years since, the drug crisis and homelessness have exploded—as of April, about 18,000 people were homeless in Oregon, a number up nearly 23 percent from two years prior, and including more women and children.

A National Drug Helpline report identified Oregon as the state with America’s worst drug problems. According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Oregon ranked last in the nation for the percentage of people with substance-use disorders needing, but not getting, treatment. The passage of Measure 110 in 2020, which decriminalized the possession—though not the sale—of all drugs has made things much worse. (See “This Is Your City on Fentanyl,” Summer 2023.)

Portland’s, and Oregon’s, disorder and homelessness woes are getting coverage in major news outlets. Even the New York Times recently admitted that drug legalization hasn’t gone as progressives expected. Too often ignored, however, is how the scourge harms children.

It’s easier to see the effects on teenagers. Drug use, drug-dealing, and overdoses have all become common in Portland public schools. Hundreds of kids have been missing from the schools since the pandemic. While some families moved and some students transferred schools, others, as a Portland Monthly article put it, “simply vanished.” They may be living on the streets, lured by the drugs readily available in the homeless encampments.        

Pam Pearce is the founder of Harmony Academy, Portland’s first recovery high school for kids battling substance-use disorders. Harmony doesn’t take the place of a rehab facility but provides students with support groups and other strategies for coping with the temptation to start using again. Pearce, a former addict, says that she knew that Measure 110 would have dark effects. She saw how the campaign described “small amounts” of drugs as okay. “I’ve never met anyone who does heroin casually on a Friday night. If you’re using 2 grams of coke or 40 opioid pills or 12 grams of shrooms, you have a drug problem. That’s not the same as having a glass of wine.”

Even if children under 18 are technically not supposed to possess drugs under the new law, the city has created a “perfect storm,” Pearce says, by “normalizing drug use for kids.” During Covid, she adds, “we made sure that people could still get weed and booze delivered to their homes,” even as other businesses remained locked down.

Moses observes: “When we decided it was okay for people to have a small amount and it’s not considered a crime, I think that started that alarming trend of ‘now we can openly do it. We won’t go to jail for it.’ ” Moses heard all the arguments that Measure 110 would help “people who are sitting in jail for having small amounts of marijuana on them,” but he still didn’t vote for it. During the few days I spent in Portland, it was mostly the nonwhite, working-class men and women who told me that they knew that Measure 110 would bring chaos. Noting the homeless encampments on the freeway ramps and slamming her hand on the steering wheel, my Hispanic Uber driver asked with exasperation, “What did they think was going to happen?”

Portland can seem dystopian. A naked homeless man in a wheelchair goes by the front of my hotel as I’m leaving one morning. Inside a supermarket, I witness a manager yelling at someone walking out with stolen items under his jacket. Officer Arnold and I bicycle around for a couple of hours and see people openly cooking fentanyl over public flowerpots. Arnold asks someone urinating on the corner whether he knows about the public toilets nearby. A homeless woman sporting an L. L. Bean duffel bag screams at a sanitation worker for asking her to get her stuff out of the way so that he could clean the sidewalk. She threatens Arnold when he asks her to move, but she relocates across the street. Tents blight almost every block. Urine stench pervades downtown. Storefronts are empty. The buildings still in use have put up large fences so that the homeless don’t take over their steps.

We ride past an elderly woman pushing a walker. Arnold says that he caught her selling pills out of the compartment under it. He shows me the intersection where drugs were sold a few weeks ago. Now that cops have made a few busts there, the deals have shifted elsewhere.

Read the rest

Portland’s Encampment Kids
Though drug addiction and homelessness in the city have drawn national attention, the most innocent victims—children—often go overlooked.