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  • Harper Gold

Portland's Battle Against the Fentanyl Crisis

Courtesy of CNN


On January 30, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek (D-MA) declared a state of emergency for opioid usage in the city of Portland. The state of emergency was set to last 90 days and aims to coordinate emergency response efforts and limit crime. The state of Oregon, in conjunction with the city of Portland and Multnomah County, has directed agencies to work on developing treatment facilities and restricting illegal drug sales. 


Fentanyl, the deadliest synthetic opioid, is now the leading cause of death for 18 to 49-year-olds in the United States. Illicit fentanyl is coined by medical professionals as the “zombie drug,” as it often contains Xylazine which alters a person's behavior and physical appearance, leading to zombie-like characteristics. It is highly addictive, urging users to re-dose every 45 to 90 minutes, with about fifty times more strength than heroin. Illegally-produced fentanyl is commonly added to other similar-looking drugs, and due to its high potency, it makes drugs cheaper and more dangerous. 


Oregon has especially struggled with fentanyl usage. According to the Oregon Health Authority, three people die every day from an unintended drug overdose. Although Oregon was not among the states with the highest rate of deaths in 2021, fentanyl’s usage has multiplied exponentially ever since and has moved past the state’s ability to control the issue. “We are having an overdose epidemic like I’ve never seen, and I’ve been in this field for over 40 years,” says Rick Treleavan, the CEO of BestCare Treatment Services, a recovery services provider based in Central Oregon. 


This emergency has sparked controversy in Oregon politics, as Oregon was the first state in the nation to essentially decriminalize drug use back in 2020. The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, or Measure 110, ensured police sent users to treatment facilities, not jail. Many citizens benefited greatly from this policy, giving them a second chance and recognizing drug addiction as a health problem, not a crime. 


However, non-supporters of Measure 110 believe that it was the main reason for the crisis. A recent DHM Research poll found that two-thirds of Oregon voters support bringing back criminal penalties for drug possession. Many voters feel that the expansion of treatment options promised by Measure 110 never fully materialized. As a result, Governor Kotek signaled that she would be willing to sign a bill to re-criminalize drug use in Oregon. But, rolling back on the measure may lead to more private drug use, increasing the risk of overdoses.


On a federal level, the U.S. Department of Justice has acknowledged the multi-national involvement in fentanyl implementation. In April, the department released a statement announcing that it had charged Mexican drug cartel leaders, such as Ismael Zambada Garcia,  for their role in bringing fentanyl into the United States. In previous years, China had been known to be the main supplier of illicit fentanyl. Buyers could purchase a package straight from China and get it shipped directly to their address. However, now, the DEA has found that China produces the fentanyl and ships it to Mexican drug cartels, such as the Sinaloa cartel, which then bring the drug into the U.S. The governmental efforts to put an end to the fentanyl emergency have widely failed, leaving it up to states to find a way to limit usage– which Oregon is not equipped to do.  


Many experts have found that Oregon simply does not have the infrastructure to get in front of the growing opioid crisis in terms of housing, treatment of all levels, and general support. The sheer growth of the issue has surpassed the number of qualified providers to meet the needs of Oregon. “The most recent studies are telling us that Oregon has about 50% of the treatment access or treatment capacity that it needs to meet the population health needs of Oregonians more broadly,” says Dr. Andrew Mendenhall, CEO and president of Central City Concern. 


The crisis requires a considerable amount of time, money, and support to be directed toward the streets of Portland. Proposed House Bill 2395 in 2023, however, would decriminalize the distribution of fentanyl testing strips and make it easier to access naloxone, the generic version of Narcan. Although the bill is a form of adaptation to the crisis rather than direct mitigation, it would prevent many unintentional fentanyl overdoses. As communities continue to grapple with the devastating toll of the fentanyl crisis, it becomes evident that comprehensive action is essential to prevent further loss of lives and mitigate its impact on society.


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