PORTLAND, Ore. — Editor's note: This is one part of an ongoing series of stories exploring the impact of Measure 110 from a variety of perspectives.
In November 2020, Oregon voters approved Measure 110, essentially decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs — from heroin to cocaine to opioid pills. Instead of criminal penalties, the law calls for treatment centers to be set up all over the state, so addiction could be treated as a health care issue, not a law enforcement issue.
The problem, law enforcement says, is that has led to a huge increase in the amount of drugs on the streets — and now, an increase in crime.
KGW joined Sgt. Matt Ferguson, the leader of the Special Investigations Unit of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, for a ride-along to see what that looks like. On this day, Ferguson and his team partnered with Portland Police to run surveillance on a motel in Northeast Portland.
"It's been a constant source of complaints, ranging from assaults to prostitution to drug dealing. Drug dealing is kind of driving the complaints there," Ferguson said.
After the team spotted and stopped a car they recognized from earlier drug activity, Ferguson explained it's obvious who belongs in the area and who doesn't.
"They’re not associated with the hotel at all, and that’s where we see some of the drug dealing happening, where we see prostitution. So those are all kind of telltale things that we’ll look for. A lot of the hotels are trying to do their best to combat this," he said. Ferguson said license plates can tell them a lot — an obvious red flag is if the plates don't match up with the vehicle.
Back at the office, Ferguson showed off drugs and guns seized in two recent cases, including a stash of small blue pills: fentanyl.
"It's everywhere. It's everybody we contact. I have a couple cases that are back-to-back cases we did this week, and in each case, it's fentanyl possession and stolen handguns. This is almost everything we do right now," Ferguson said.
"Measure 110 has everything to do with it," he added.
Ferguson said because Measure 110 reduced criminal penalties for small drug amounts, the drug business has flourished.
"The fentanyl pills are counterfeit OxyContin pills. By decriminalizing that, it's basically legitimized criminal organizations. Drug possession, use and sale is just rampant, with very little consequences, and it's taken away our tools as police officers to sort of interdict that."
Reported drug offenses in Portland dropped from 880 between February 2020 and January 2021, before Measure 110 went into effect, to 364 the following year. Instead, law enforcement is focused on large-scale busts.
Ferguson was involved in a bust last June in which investigators found 500 fentanyl pills and 44 firearms, two of which were machine guns, and 1,000 grams of methamphetamine.
In March, the DEA took down a ring of 12 people accused of importing fentanyl from Mexico into California and Oregon. They seized 115,000 fentanyl pills, 41 pounds of meth and 57 pounds of heroin. The same month, several agencies led by Homeland Security seized 150,000 fentanyl pills and 20 pounds of suspected bulk fentanyl, the largest single fentanyl seizure in Oregon history.
"Fentanyl is a lot easier to produce, it’s a lot easier to ship, because heroin has a very distinct smell, it's expensive, it's hard to make. You have to get it here. Dogs will alert to it if you have an odor-seeking dog. It's just hard to get," Ferguson explained. "Fentanyl is super easy. It's pill form, you can get thousands of them relatively easily. They sell for as little as $3 a pill, and heroin is as much as a hundred dollars a gram. So if I’m a user, and Portland has this massive base, fentanyl is just the way to go. It's just a better business model for the cartels."
Ferguson said he wants people to know the streets are getting more dangerous.
"We’ve seen more guns than we’ve ever seen in our investigations. Almost everybody is armed, and I think that’s tantamount to what we are finding in our investigations. Criminal organizations are robbing other criminal organizations. That’s kind of our big push right now — trying to stop the gun violence and the drug violence that goes with it, because they’re hand in hand. It's not one or the other. It's not related to the pandemic, it's not related to COVID, it's because we have a criminal environment that’s tolerated and allowed to flourish here.”