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Portland City Council passes ban on public drug use, with one big caveat

The new ordinance will only take effect if Oregon law changes. Current state statues prohibit local governments from criminalizing public substance use.

PORTLAND, Ore. — After about two hours of public comment on Wednesday, Portland City Council voted unanimously to prohibit public drug use in the city, contingent on a change to state law. Alongside the ban, commissioners passed a resolution directing city officials to push for that state-level change.

Because the ordinance included a declaration of emergency, it did not require a second read and passed immediately.

"Just by virtue of illustrating how important this issue is, the last time I saw somebody consuming what what I believe to be fentanyl publicly on our streets was less than five minutes ago, three blocks from city hall," Mayor Ted Wheeler said during his introductory remarks.

Speakers who were invited to testify on the ordinance by the commissioners largely gave enthusiastic support for the ban, though at least one speaker expressed worry that it would only succeed in pushing rampant drug use further into the shadows, resulting in more overdose deaths and fewer opportunities for intervention.

Other speakers expressed concern about the ordinance representing an overall shift away from treating addiction as a public health issue and back toward treating it as a criminal issue, or felt that it would result in arbitrary enforcement of controlled substance use in public.

Still, the majority of testimony supported both the ordinance and overall urgent action on addiction and drug treatment infrastructure.

RELATED: 'We're beating our heads against a wall': Overdoses take lives and a toll on Portland firefighters, with no solution in sight

Mayor Wheeler proposed a near-identical ordinance outlawing public drug use in June. However, he withdrew that proposal as "no longer necessary" after lawmakers passed a bill that added criminal penalties for fentanyl possession, albeit under the same structure as other drugs that were decriminalized in user amounts by Measure 110.

RELATED: A majority of Oregonians want to see Measure 110 tossed aside, poll finds

But Wheeler also admitted at the time that the ordinance may not have survived a legal challenge due to existing state statute which prohibits local governments from adopting or enforcing local regulations on "using or being under the influence of cannabis or controlled substances."

As a result, the new version of the ordinance does not go into effect immediately. Instead it includes a "trigger" amendment, meaning the regulations would go into effect immediately after the Oregon Legislature or the courts change or suspend that statute.

If it were to go into effect, the ordinance will add other controlled substances, including fentanyl, to an existing ordinance that prohibits drinking alcohol in public outside of permitted areas. Violations of the ban would be punishable by a fine of up to $500, a stay of up to six months in jail, or both.

RELATED: Portland drug users are getting free supplies, whether Multnomah County distributes them or not

Paired with the public drug use ordinance before city council on Wednesday was a resolution directing Portland's Office of Government Relations to lobby for the necessary change to state statute, in addition to advocating for state funding in support of drug treatment and sobering programs, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office and reforms to the state's beleaguered public defender system.

Gov. Tina Kotek's office shared a statement with KGW Thursday morning.

"The Governor believes public consumption of controlled substances is a problem that needs to be addressed. She intends to work with legislators to fix the issue and expects a bill on her desk in next year’s session," the statement said.

This is a developing story and may be updated with more details as they emerge.

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