PORTLAND, Ore. — Casting about for ways to get a handle on entrenched problems with drug use and addiction, the Canadian province of British Columbia embarked early this year on a pilot program decriminalizing user amounts of drugs — something Oregon voters approved in 2020.
British Columbia covers the westernmost segment of Canada, forming Washington's northern border. It houses the city of Vancouver, which is bigger than Portland by about 34,000 people.
Decriminalization in B.C. is supposed to be part of a multi-pronged approach to the addiction problem, an attempt to cut down on the high number of drug-related deaths there — in part by fighting back against the stigma that might be a barrier for seeking help.
As the new rules there went into effect at the end of January, a network crew from CBC News, Canada's national news outlet, paid a visit to Portland in order to get a glimpse of what the future might hold.
They started out their report like this:
"This is Portland, Oregon, two years after decriminalizing personal amounts of hard drugs," said reporter Lyndsay Duncombe. "The open drug use, the deaths worse than ever."
The Story's Pat Dooris caught up with Duncombe recently as she traveled to cover forest fires in B.C.
The Portland example
While Duncombe was in Portland, she spent time downtown with police, taking a look at some of the challenges facing the city every day. She said that there were some obvious difference between Portland and Vancouver, B.C. — not so much with the drug laws themselves, but with the location of the drug use.
"It's very interesting to compare the two cities, because I think one of the things that we noticed is that so many of the people who were using on the streets and living on the streets in Portland seemed to be very spread out over a large region of the downtown, several blocks," she said. "Whereas in B.C. or in Vancouver specifically, it certainly is more focused geographically to a highly concentrated area in our downtown east side."
"Now recently a tent encampment was moved out by the city (of Vancouver) so it has become more spread out, or at least runs the potential for that to happen as the fallout from that continues," Duncombe continued. "But it was a different sort of — different sort of interaction (in Portland) because we did feel it was block upon block upon block of seeing the real human suffering of addiction."
Duncombe said she'd been briefed on the scale of drug use in Portland, so she wasn't terribly surprised to see it when she arrived. She rode along with Portland police officer David Bayer in downtown, seeing the open trading of drugs in Portland for herself.
"I was surprised by the interactions with the police, I think, and how it just seemed to be such a familiar routine of stopping, chatting, ticketing — that sort of thing," Duncombe said. "I was surprised by the desperation. You know, we were there while a young man who had been already revived by emergency crews the previous day was then again revived by the emergency crews and by the police. Just really, really heartbreaking."
By "revived," Duncombe means that first responders are using Narcan to reverse overdoses on the street. Officer Bayer told her that it happens every day.
Duncombe reported in her segment that two people die of drug overdoses each day in Oregon, and the death toll in B.C. is three times that. But Oregon's decriminalization hasn't resulted in numbers going down. In the first year after Oregon passed Measure 110, she reported, opioid overdose deaths rose 52%.
Oregon's drug decriminalization occurred just as the streets of many North American cities became flooded with the synthetic opioid fentanyl — cheap, powerful, highly addictive and prone to resulting in overdoses.
'They're just trying to keep them from dying'
As CBC covered the first day of decriminalization in B.C. on January 31, they found that many people were unaware of the new legal landscape. The network also pointed out that police had generally stopped arresting anyone for having small amounts of drugs back in 2020.
That's not unlike Oregon's story. When the Secretary of State's office released its audit of Measure 110 earlier this year, auditors noted that even prior to the measure, Oregon had no adults in custody serving prison time solely for drug possession charges. Generally speaking, people committing crimes related to substance abuse and addiction were being arrested and prosecuted for the other crimes, not for drug possession.
The audit also found inconsistencies in the way that law enforcement agencies have adopted the citation and referral process under Measure 110.
B.C. is the first province in Canada to decriminalize drugs, but the city of Toronto has requested the same permission. The Canadian Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, believes that it's a good move.
"We will be able to reduce the stigma, the fear and shame that keep people who use drugs silent about their use or using alone and help more people access life saving supports and treatment," Bennett said.
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Drug decriminalization has been in effect for a few months in B.C. now, but it's perhaps too early to tell how it's going since one of the main goals is to reduce the stigma around drug use.
While reporting on downtown Portland last week, Pat Dooris bumped into a Canadian tourist who lives just outside of Vancouver, B.C. He said that he sees the same problems there as in Portland.
"I think we're really dealing with a lot of the same issues. But it's just ... Abbotsford, it's gotten really bad," the tourist said, referring to his home city between Vancouver and the U.S. border. "There's a huge homeless population. It's just drugs. It's the drugs, the fentanyl — and then 'cause they need the cash, the crime ... and it's — they don't seem to be worried about getting them off the drugs. They're just trying to keep them from dying."
Drug decriminalization in B.C. is loosely modeled on the example set by Portugal. But like Oregon, the B.C. policy has received criticism for lacking the kind of infrastructure that Portugal employs to aid people in long-term recovery.
RELATED: Oregon modeled Measure 110 on Portugal's drug decriminalization. They aren't remotely the same
Unlike in Oregon, drug decriminalization in B.C. has a built-in expiration date, or at the very least a date by which the government will evaluate how it's going. The pilot program lasts three years, ending January 31, 2026.
By the numbers
Portland-based DHM Research recently put out polling on Oregon's Measure 110. They found that 51% of voters believe it has been bad for Oregon, and that the majority of voters believe Measure 110 has made drug addiction, homelessness and crime worse.
DHM found that 63% of respondents would support bringing back criminal penalties for drug possession while keeping the part of the measure that allocates cannabis tax money for drug treatment programs.
The same survey found that 59% of respondents think the root cause of homelessness is drug addiction and mental health issues, not a lack of affordable housing.
The DHM survey was conducted during the last week of April, involving 500 people from around the state. DHM said the results have a margin of error at 4.5%.
The last completed stats for overdoses in Oregon come from 2021, the first year of Measure 110, as state and federal agencies have yet to publish updated data for 2022. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, there were 1,171 drug overdose deaths in Oregon that year, or a "death rate" of 26.8 per 100,000 people in the state.
While certainly higher than in previous years, Oregon's drug overdose mortality rate in 2021 was far from the highest in the nation. The worst states for drug overdose deaths that year were West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana. In fact, Oregon and neighboring Washington and California were comparable, and all in the lower half of U.S. states for drug overdose mortality rate.
At the same time, there are signs that Oregon's drug crisis is worsening more quickly than in other states. Also in 2021, overdose deaths in Oregon rose 41%, compared to a nationwide increase of 16%. Those increases are fueled by fentanyl and more powerful forms of methamphetamine.
Just this last weekend, Portland police put out a warning about a potential "bad batch" of drugs being bought and sold on the streets. Eight people died in Portland from suspected drug overdoses between Friday morning and Sunday afternoon.
Police said that the victims believed they were using cocaine, but the cocaine was either mixed with fentanyl or was pure powdered fentanyl. Police suspect fentanyl overdoses in at least six of the eight cases, with more testing needed on the last two cases.