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In downtown Portland’s fentanyl crisis, Oregon leaders declare emergency

The city, county and state governments declared an emergency surrounding fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid, though the announcement won’t include additional funding
(Left to right) Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, at a press conference in Portland, Jan. 30, 2024, where a a 90-day state of emergency was declared to address the fentanyl crisis in Portland. The action followed a recommendation by the Portland Central City Task Force, and will direct resources in an “unified response.” | KRISTYNA WENTZ-GRAFF/OPB
February 1, 2024

Multnomah County, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon are embarking on a 90-day experiment to address downtown Portland’s fentanyl crisis. Tuesday, the three governments jointly declared a fentanyl emergency, directing their agencies to work alongside each other on programs that connect people addicted to the synthetic opioid with treatment programs and to crack down on drug sales.

“Our country and our state have never seen a drug this deadly addictive, and all are grappling with how to respond,” Gov. Tina Kotek said in a statement. “We are all in this together.”

The declaration is one of several recommendations that came out of Kotek’s Central City Task Force, a group that met for four months last year to focus on ways to rejuvenate downtown Portland. The 90-day emergency focuses solely on Portland’s “central city,” an area that spans from Goose Hollow to the Lloyd District. But, at a Tuesday press conference, Kotek said that this response isn’t just about Portland.

“The emergency response in Portland will benefit the entire region, state and tribal lands because we know that a large share of fentanyl in Oregon is trafficked through our major city,” she said in an early afternoon news conference.

The declaration comes years after fentanyl rooted itself in the region, spurring deaths, addiction and violent crime. According to Multnomah County, the number of overdose fatalities involving fentanyl increased 533% between 2018 and 2022 in the county. The region has also experienced a serious shortage of substance use treatment providers and recovery centers — despite the 2020 passage of a ballot measure meant to fund new drug treatment programs across Oregon. Measure 110 also decriminalized small amounts of illicit drugs, an aspect that state lawmakers are aiming to renegotiate in this year’s legislative session, which begins next week.

The emergency plan establishes a “command center” in a city building, where staff from the three governments will work. The idea is that people addicted to fentanyl who interact with first responders in Portland’s central city will be triaged by this new command center. Staff can connect that person with a range of resources — anything from a bed in a drug treatment center to a meeting with a behavioral health clinician to assistance signing up for food stamps.

“We are acting with shared leadership to take urgent action today to respond to the very human toll fentanyl takes in our community, including overdoses, fatalities and day-to-day suffering, and the fear so many families are experiencing as a result,” Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said in a statement.

The emergency declaration doesn’t come with new funding to operate the center. The governments are expected to rearrange current budgets and staff to coordinate their multijurisdictional response. The city and county are both drafting their annual budgets, which officials say will be informed by this new directive. Both jurisdictions are preparing to make budget cuts in the face of revenue shortfalls.

The multi-agency approach is not new. The city and county in 2022 created the Street Services Coordination Center, a program established to streamline the region’s homelessness response. Through a “coordinated command structure,” the program is meant to address individuals’ unique housing and health needs. The city has deemed this new program a success, while early data shows that it has struggled to connect people living outside with shelter. The emergency declaration adds state agencies to this structure.

“We cannot underestimate the tremendous value of bringing leaders from different disciplines in a room on a daily basis who all account for a different part of the solution,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement.

Each jurisdiction has assigned an incident commander to lead their government’s work on the command team. Former Multnomah County Health Officer Jennifer Vines, who led the county through the COVID-19 pandemic, will work as the county’s incident commander. Mike Myers, the director of Portland’s Community Safety Division, will lead the city’s command team. Nathan Reynolds, deputy policy chief at the state’s Office of Resilience and Emergency Management, will be the state’s incident commander.

The response goes beyond just individual support. It extends the Portland Police Bureau’s partnership with Oregon State Police to jointly patrol downtown streets for fentanyl sales during a daytime shift once a week. Wheeler, who previously called for nearly 100 troopers to be sent to the city to address the drug crises, again called for more help from outside the city. He described the state police support as “sporadic.”

“I’d like to see it become a more regular part of our community and I’d like to see it significantly expanded based on the current success of the program,” Wheeler said at the Tuesday news conference.

The program additionally kicks off several informational campaigns centered on drug prevention and recovery programs across the region, led by the county. The county will also be responsible for expanding outreach and training on how to administer Narcan, an overdose-reversal drug.

The program doesn’t establish any goals to measure success.

At the Tuesday press conference, Vega Pederson said incident commanders from each jurisdiction are still figuring out what success will look like.

“One of the first orders of business is to come together to create those specific measurable outcomes that we want to see,” she said. “We know that the overall goal of this is really to have a visible improvement in fentanyl consumption.”

Government officials hope the new structure can be sustained beyond its 90-day timeframe, which would wrap at the end of April.

Max Williams, the former state lawmaker who also previously led the Oregon Corrections Department, issued a statement saying the emergency was a good start. “But a permanent fix to Measure 110 is necessary,” he said, citing the 2020 drug decriminalization measure. Williams, with the Coalition to Fix & Improve Measure 110, which is considering a ballot measure this fall, said the state “needs to recriminalize possession of fentanyl and other hard drugs as a Class A misdemeanor to help save lives and rescue communities.”

This article was originally published by OPB.