Officer Daniel DiMatteo is a 24-year police veteran—ten years with the Chicago P.D., then 14 years and counting with the Portland Police Bureau. He’s worked on gang crime and gun violence. And now, he spends much of his time trying to deal with Portland’s drug crisis.
On the day I met him, in March 2023, DiMatteo was patrolling a stretch of downtown around Washington Center, a decommissioned shopping mall that has become a hot spot for drug use. Not long afterward, cops swept the area after it saw 11 overdoses in one night. But on this day, it was full of people, many of them homeless, most using drugs in broad daylight.
Tiny foil scraps covered the ground for blocks, remnants of “safe smoking kits”: you put your drug of choice on the foil, heat it with a lighter, and inhale the resultant smoke through a straw (also provided). Most of the users were smoking, though a few also shot up. Needles are also freely available.
The drug of choice is fentanyl. Heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine are all out of the picture now, explained DiMatteo. Instead, people smoke fentanyl, either as loose powder or pressed into the shape of pills, called “blues” for their color. A blue runs $2 or so; chronic users on Portland’s streets will routinely consume 20 to 30 a day.
Over the course of two hours, DiMatteo doesn’t arrest any of the numerous people we see smoking drugs in the middle of the sidewalk. He can’t. Since February 2021, possession of controlled substances has been “decriminalized” in Oregon, a decision that voters approved as part of state Ballot Measure 110. The best he can do is write a $100 ticket—which will, in almost all cases, not be paid.
At one point, DiMatteo spotted a man about to light up, and flagged him over. The man was a youngish white guy, wearing wraparound shades. He’d been using for about three years, he said, and then, at DiMatteo’s request, he revealed what he was holding—a blue and some white powder, perched in the foil. This, he said, he got for about $7; it will keep him feeling good for a few hours. A friend darted over, grabbed his lighter, and darted away. “What’s your friend worried about?” asked DiMatteo. The guy looked puzzled, replying, “It’s decriminalized, right?”
Instead of ticketing or arresting, DiMatteo’s approach was mostly to make his presence known, usually with a wise-guy attitude. When we turned a corner and spotted an open-air drug deal, he told the men to break it up. The dealer wasn’t carrying enough—usually under a gram—to warrant an arrest, but that didn’t stop DiMatteo from warning him not to pull the knife visible in his back pocket. We saw several of these; machetes are apparently also common. Homicide among Portland’s homeless is, not coincidentally, at its highest point in over a decade.
Even absent danger, such interactions are often frustrating. Maybe three in every four users he talks to, DiMatteo claimed, concede that, yeah, they shouldn’t be doing drugs in public. But while DiMatteo repeatedly offered help in finding treatment or a shelter, only one person said yes. A fire department employee we met said that for every ten people he offers services to, eight or nine say no.
And if they say no, nothing much else can be done, because there are no consequences for smoking fentanyl on a public sidewalk. There is, lamented DiMatteo, “no accountability.” Most users tell him that they have no reason to go to a shelter—shelters have curfews and rules about drugs, after all, and tents don’t. Aren’t they freer, in a sense, if they reject help?
Many of their fellow Portlanders, alarmingly, seem to agree. DiMatteo once knew a woman, he said, who offered to have him write her a ticket for smoking meth in public, just so he could feel useful. At one point, as the two talked, a driver stopped, rolled down his window, and told DiMatteo to stop harassing the woman. “He’s trying to talk to me about getting services!” the woman shot back. The driver, oblivious, insisted that DiMatteo leave her alone anyway.
This, in miniature, is the attitude that produced Measure 110: all law enforcement does is harass drug users, making their lives worse. Leave the addicts alone and then . . . well, surely things will get better.
Portland has a homelessness problem. Of the 5,000 homeless individuals in Multnomah County (where the city is located), about 3,000 were unsheltered on the coldest night of the year; around the same number are chronically homeless. It also has a drug problem. The drug-overdose death rate more than doubled between 2018 and 2021. In 2021, more than one in every 2,000 county residents died from a drug overdose, usually from fentanyl or methamphetamine. The problems tend to intersect: nearly 200 homeless people died in the county in 2021, and 82 percent of those deaths involved drugs.
These problems don’t distinguish Portland from other big West Coast cities. San Francisco and Seattle have large homeless populations and high overdose death rates. What makes Portland different is its response. In November 2020, voters passed Measure 110, the “Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative,” by a 17-point margin. The law made small possession of drugs only a “violation,” punishable by just a $100 fine, which can be waived if the violator calls a hotline to get a free “health assessment.” And it mandated the creation of an expansive network of addiction-services facilities funded by marijuana-tax revenue.
Measure 110’s passage represented a major victory for an ascendant, progressive view of drug policy. America, in this telling, has been wrongly approaching drug addiction from a punitive angle, locking up millions of people—disproportionately “black and brown”—just for getting high. Instead, advocates contend, we should decriminalize drug possession and treat drug use as a “public health” problem, to be addressed through the judicious application of social services.
“I think it was about recognizing when something isn’t working,” said Tera Hurst, who led the fight to pass 110 and now runs the Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which advocates for its implementation. “The criminalization of people creates really harmful barriers for folks who are trying to get back into what we would say is a healthy, functioning society—trying to get housing, jobs, bank accounts, all of those things that are critical for you to really thrive here. Adding barriers to someone because they have a small amount of drugs in their pocket just doesn’t feel like commonsense public policy.” Further, Hurst added, Oregon’s addiction-services system was (and is) “half the size it should be.” That last part seems right: national data put Oregon last among states by share of people who need, but aren’t getting, treatment for substance abuse. It’s second only to Vermont for the share of its population admitting to recent drug use.
Still, Measure 110 has been mired in controversy. In an audit, the Oregon secretary of state called the rollout “challenging,” attacking the primary oversight body for failing to deliver on key responsibilities. Cities and counties have tried to claw back marijuana funds, saying that 110 “blew a hole” in their budgets. The police insist that the measure has gutted their ability to enforce public order. Addiction health experts have charged that it hasn’t provided the treatment services that Oregonians were promised. Drug deaths keep rising.
The vision behind Measure 110 isn’t new. Organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the George Soros–backed advocacy group that pushed for 110, have promoted these ideas for years. But in Oregon, they have finally rallied the political and financial will needed to make it a reality. The DPA poured more than $5 million into the initiative. Other major policy funders joined it, including the Laura and John Arnold Foundation ($700,000), the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative ($500,000), and the Sixteen Thirty Fund ($250,000). The anti-110 side raised just over $160,000. It’s surprising that the vote was as close as it was.
Visit Portland, though, and it’s hard to see how the new situation is an improvement. The regime that 110 is building seems primarily geared toward facilitating, rather than alleviating, addiction. A purportedly “carceral” regime has been replaced by one of neglect—benign or otherwise.
One beneficiary of Measure 110’s funding is the Miracles Club, a recovery-services program based on Portland’s east side. It’s used the $3.2 million it received under 110 to operate three transition houses, as well as offer a variety of programming, from intensive outpatient treatment to acupuncture. The program also regularly distributes clothes to the homeless. The procedure is simple: two club employees—on this day, Dom and Kayla—bundle clothes, new from Costco, into the back of a car, and head out to distribute them. They’ve also put together harm-reduction kits—needles, naloxone (liquid and injected), bandages—in “Miracles Club” tote bags, to be offered along with the clothes.
“Harm reduction,” meaning interventions that make drug use (ostensibly) safer without necessarily discouraging continued use, is a big priority under the new regime. In 110’s first year, nearly 60 percent of the 16,000 clients who accessed services that it funded got some kind of harm-reduction service, like needle exchanges or naloxone. Less than 1 percent got treatment.
The first Miracles Club stop is Dawson Park, a hub of the black community on Portland’s east side. When Dom and Kayla pop the trunk and start giving out clothes, most of those shuffling up to pick over the offerings are black, though a few white faces are visible, too. The club’s goal is to provide comfort: being homeless, addicted to drugs, is harsh enough, so why should anyone in such circumstances not get clean things to wear? It doesn’t matter, apparently, that most of the men and women rifling through the garments seem dressed in clothes of similar quality to what they’re receiving for free. Nor does it matter that at least one man who takes a jacket for himself is clearly not homeless. Across the street, it looks as though one woman turns around and sells an article of clothing she’s just picked up to another. But who can say?
After Dawson Park comes downtown, near where Officer DiMatteo was working. The Miracles Club car stops across from the offices of Street Roots, a local homelessness-advocacy group, where many homeless individuals congregate. The procedure here is mostly the same: club workers hand out clothes and harm-reduction kits, no questions asked. According to Kayla, the Miracles Club’s workers don’t go out of their way to solicit street people for services, as DiMatteo did, but wait for them to ask for help. This is not unusual practice among drug-focused nonprofits; it’s part of the “meet people where they’re at” ethos.
The Miracles Club does more than provide free clothes. According to information that the club provided to Portland magazine We Out Here, Measure 110 funds have covered a wide variety of its services—among them, transitional housing beds, 27 in total, including ten in a house specifically for the “African American LGBTQ+ community.” But there’s also a “living wage” that the club provides for “peer mentors” (recovered addicts who now help current ones). And the 110 money pays for other things for club clients: hygiene products, food, rent, phones, and even gas.
That’s all very charitable. But few of those offered the Miracles Club’s services get help to quit drugs. In 2022, the club told We Out Here, it contacted nearly 7,000 homeless people and had 1,700 peer-to-peer counseling encounters. But just 83 of its clients completed residential treatment, and another 78 finished outpatient treatment. That’s not so far off from the number (37) who got free computers.
Some Miracles Club services may indeed help drug abusers on some level (the jury remains out on acupuncture). But it’s hard to imagine that Oregonians expected that their tax dollars would go toward free computers and gas money when they voted for the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative. Certainly, life on the streets is unpleasant; but why is the marginal government dollar going toward making it less unpleasant—as opposed to getting the homeless and addicted off the streets?
Asked what he thinks of the view that making life on the streets more comfortable enables addiction, Dom pauses to consider. He is, he has previously volunteered, in recovery himself. On reflection, he says that, yes, this sort of thing enabled him when he was using. But, he continues, that’s just how he experienced it; others may see it differently.
Providing drug treatment was part of Measure 110’s justification. Nine percent of Oregonians were addicted to an illicit drug as of 2020, more than residents in any other state. Eighteen percent of those needing treatment, though, were not getting it—again, more than in any other state. The problem has been particularly acute among the young. As of last September, just four residential treatment facilities existed for teenagers, none offering medication-assisted treatment. Measure 110 funds were supposed to fill that gap. And the money is now flowing—more than $250 million has been promised, and $150 million paid out. But is all that money providing what addicted Oregonians really require?
Some of the funds are going to Alan Evans. Evans was homeless and addicted to drugs for 27 years. Now, he runs Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers, a comprehensive homelessness-services program operating across several Oregon counties. But despite now accepting Measure 110 money, Evans voted against the initiative, he said, because it removed the accountability that is necessary to help people escape addiction, and failed to prioritize the integrated services that many of his clients desperately need. “We legalize drug use,” Evans noted, “and we also do harm reduction, we give free needles, we give foil, we teach people how to use responsibly, we give them Narcan. The message we’re sending to people like me, that come from that place, is stay exactly where you’re at, and by the way, we’re going to do our best to help you so that you don’t die, and why don’t you wait for three to 20 years and we’ll get you housing built?”
Most Measure 110 beneficiaries are more supportive of it than Evans, and most spend their money the way the Miracles Club does. Portland-based Fresh Out Community Based Reentry told We Out Here that the first 202 people it served received “employment support, peer mentoring, harm reduction services, and food insecurity assistance.” Just 27 clients went to treatment. Painted Horse Recovery, a “culturally specific” recovery center that caters to American Indians, informed the magazine that Measure 110 funded “drum making kits, beads and hides for Natives getting out of prison and treatment.” As Painted Horse executive director Jerrod Murray enthused: “With this money, we see that our approaches work for our people. We are now better equipped to have our community connect to culture through beading, regalia making, drum making and a safe community space. These things are helping people stay clean.”
Asked about this prioritization, Tera Hurst conceded that the state may have to draw on federal funding sources to get real treatment capacity online. But, she added, “I feel like the [providers’] services are exactly the right services, and if they’re too heavy on peer support for a little bit in a county, you know, peers can be the difference between somebody staying alive and somebody dying.”
Others have been far more critical. Speaking to the Oregon Senate Committee on the Judiciary last September, Stanford addiction specialist Keith Humphreys charged that Oregon had become too concerned with harm reduction, to the detriment of treatment. “If Oregon continues on its current path of not complementing effective harm reduction with strong prevention and treatment initiatives, and of focusing harm reduction only on people who use drugs, it should expect rising drug use, addiction, and harms to communities,” he maintained.
Those community harms are the most hotly debated part of the Measure 110 rollout. Proponents contended that, if anything, the measure would reduce crime, as it would, in Hurst’s view, allow law enforcement to “focus on the more violent crime and violent criminals, and property crimes.” Decriminalizing a “gram of heroin in somebody’s pocket, which is all decrim did, does not increase criminal activity, and criminal activity is still criminal,” Hurst argued. “If anything, when you have more services and more people being able to connect with folks who are in desperate situations, you’re actually creating better community safety and not the other way around.”
But crime isn’t dropping. According to a recent Research Triangle Institute assessment, police calls for service remain roughly flat in Portland. This may be because the time police aren’t spending on drug crimes is now directed toward property crime, which surged in Portland in the months following Measure 110’s implementation. That shouldn’t be surprising: the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission once estimated that 78 percent of property offenses were committed by people stealing to support their addiction. If drug use is less controlled, it increases, and so do its negative social effects.
Measure 110 has constrained the police’s ability to stem the disorder evident on Portland’s streets. Police can, yes, issue citations for possession. But the citations are ineffectual. As of August 2022, more than 3,000 possession citations had been issued statewide. In only about 4 percent of cases did recipients call the hotline to get a health assessment; just 1 percent requested treatment resources. During its first 15 months, the Oregon secretary of state found, this exercise cost the state about $7,000 per call. Why bother?
Measure 110 isn’t having any noticeable effect on Oregon’s drug-incarceration numbers, either. People could still get arrested for drugs in Oregon before Measure 110—about 8,000 were in 2020. But in this progressive state, they weren’t going to prison. As of the end of 2020—before 110 was implemented—data from the National Corrections Reporting Program show that fewer than 900 individuals were in Oregon’s prisons for drug-related offenses, the fifth-lowest share among states of the prison population in for drugs. And none of those people was in solely on drug-related charges. Consequently, the Oregon secretary of state observed, “there are no savings resulting from fewer individuals being incarcerated due to the drug decriminalization aspects of M110.”
Measure 110 is likely worsening Portland’s long-standing unsheltered homelessness problem, however. Josh Lair, who does community outreach for a medication-assisted treatment program, lauded 110’s funds distribution and breaking down of barriers between service providers. But he’s also seeing drug users coming to Portland from as far away as Texas and Arizona to live in the city’s homeless camps. “And a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re not going to be in trouble,” Lair said. “I ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ And they say, ‘because of the drug law.’ ”
Large parts of Portland’s downtown and Chinatown districts are now open-air drug markets. One outpost of the city’s famed Voodoo Donuts, for example, is an island in a sea of drug use and camping. The city’s bridges now offer not only a beautiful vista of the Willamette River but also the ugly sight of people living in their own filth. The criminal-justice system can’t do anything about it. And the nonprofits seem either unable or unwilling to do anything, either.
Faced with the situation on the ground in Portland, the more politic supporters of Measure 110 usually plead incompetence. This was basically the tack taken by the secretary of state’s office in its audit: 110’s rollout was bumpy not because of any fatal flaw but because everyone involved was struggling to figure things out. Asked about the rollout, Hurst noted that “changing systems in the midst of a global pandemic is not something I’d recommend to anyone.”
“I’m not going to tout that everything went out smooth. It was hard, it was messy, and it didn’t happen as quickly as I wanted it to,” Hurst said. “That said, the providers on the ground were able to work miracles getting folks the care they needed, getting up and running, hiring people, buying houses, doing the things we desperately need to create the structure of care that we just don’t have here in Oregon.”
Oregon voters aren’t buying it. In an April 2023 poll, a majority said that Measure 110 was bad for Oregon; two-thirds said that it had made drug addiction, homelessness, and crime worse. Asked if they supported restoring criminal penalties for possession while maintaining increased funding for drug treatment, nearly two in three Oregonians agreed. And even Portland mayor Ted Wheeler has had enough: he’s reportedly planning to criminalize public drug use, which, in tandem with his earlier move to ban unsanctioned camping, suggests that the city might be waking up to the effects of its lenient policies on public order. (See “Portland Sobers Up,” Spring 2023.)
Some recent Portland woes have been pinned unfairly on decriminalization—a police contact suggests, for example, that the city’s recent homicide surge was more about decarceration following Covid than about the drug regime. But voters are not wrong to see Measure 110 as an abdication. Maybe it’s okay not to punish people for using drugs—but it isn’t okay to leave them to suffer from addiction or to let them colonize public space. Yet across Portland, that is precisely what is happening.
Top Photo: Washington Center, a decommissioned shopping mall, is these days a hot spot for drug use; it recently saw 11 overdoses in one night. (Photographs by Adam Wickham)