Dispatch from Portland 2023: A Question of Addiction
With each dose, addicts chop off a little more of their figurative legs until, even if they dream of their legs, they cannot stand. Is this something we should abet?
An update to a post from 2022 in light of several events. First, the most recent post and podcast, “Dispatch from Portland 2023: ‘What’s Happening Here?’,” elicited the following comment on Twitter: “You don’t think that photo is sensationalism?”
I responded that I got the responder’s drift. “However, I’ve written 100+ pieces since 2020 about Portland. The art always tries to be illustrative of the piece, in this case, the work of @cocainemichelle and what she’s chronicling. If I’d written about @MothersBistro (and may yet!) I’d feature French toast.”
The responder, Gregory McKelvey, is a well-known activist and organizer for progressive causes. I briefly interviewed him for the 2019 Reason piece, “Proud Boys and Antifa Playact in Portland.” He was at the time heading up Sarah Iannarone’s ultimately unsuccessful run for mayor in 2020. McKelvey during that summer was responsive to my interviewing the pro-antifa candidate and we set up a Zoom with Iannarone and several members of her team, a Zoom they all ghosted. In the same comment thread about the photo, McKelvey, who is young and, as far as I can tell, smart and ambitious, has offered to come onto a podcast with me to talk about Portland. I hope he makes good. I think it behooves the reader and the city to get many voices in the room, voices willing to do more than sloganeer, or, as has sometimes been the case, flat-out tell you, you are not seeing what you are seeing.
Portland is currently debating how to deal with its burgeoning homeless issue, most recently a pilot program that offers $1000 a month to the unhoused. A little more on why I don’t think it’s not a good idea to hand out money to the homeless, in my discussion of The Bad Mother below, but you would think it would give the Oregon legislature pause to track the rise in homelessness and the commensurate rise in drug addiction. I don’t know that there can be reliable numbers, when it comes to what percentage of people on the streets are struggling with drug, alcohol and/or mental health issues. It’s too contentious an issue, people’s politics and ideologies and hearts having them see what they want to see. I can cite what those bearing witness and the people themselves tell us. “You’re not going to be out here homeless unless you’re doing some kind of drug,” the gentleman below says.
Data seem to support this. A friend, a very good journalist and author, volunteered for years at one of the missions in downtown Portland. “We always had empty beds,” he said. “People want to use and they can’t use inside, so they choose to stay outside.”
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, more than 106,000 Americans died overdose deaths in 2021. Oregon ranks second-highest in rate of substance abuse and 50th in access to treatment. Since the passage of Measure 110, which decriminalized hard drugs, “funding has been slow getting out of the gate and instances of drug abuse and overdose deaths have increased.” At the time the measure passed, fentanyl was not the death scourge it is now, and tranq, also known as the “skin-rotting zombie drug,” was not yet taking her hideous star turn. I write this as someone who believes in the decriminalization of drugs, if also that decriminalization must be coupled with serious efforts to help addicts get off drugs. I believe this to be the only humane alternative, rather than, as I write in the updated post below, helping to fuel “addictions that, as they grow, people have less and less agency over, as if, with each dose, they chop off a little more of their leg until, even if they want to, even if they dream of their legs, they cannot stand.”
I will be continuing the “Dispatch from Portland 2023” series and interviews, I am hoping next with Lisa Schoeder, owner of Mother’s Bistro, who this week told the Portland Business Journal, "Since the passage of Measure 110, Portland has become a hub for meth and fentanyl. People are coming from all over due to our lenient laws. The property crimes we're seeing are often brazen acts by people who are high."
I am sure there are people, some of them in Portland, who take issue with Schroeder’s statement. I do not. I’ve seen the rise in crime, a rise the rest of the country is taking note of. I’ve seen, too, the rictus of human misery from drugs, including people inspecting their bare and infected feet; a cruel irony, that homelessness and drugs corrode the feet, making the situation that much more difficult to escape from. If you want to do the homeless a solid, don’t hand them money but socks.
And I cannot stop thinking about the two young men I saw shooting up on that Victorian stoop near downtown. I’ll be heading back to Portland soon.