PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Following intense criticism, Multnomah County is suspending its policy to hand out drug paraphernalia like crack pipes, tin foil and straws to users.

After it was first reported by Willamette Week, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson confirmed the reversal to KOIN 6 News on Monday afternoon, saying the health department proceeded with the proposal without “proper implementation protocols.”

“In that light, I am suspending the program pending further analysis,” her statement read. “My focus has been on saving lives. We’ve seen overdose deaths from fentanyl increase 8-fold since 2019, from 26 deaths to 209 deaths in 2022.”

Vega Pederson says she’s interested in connecting people with life-saving materials like naloxone, commonly referred to by the brand-specific name Narcan, “because we’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of people utilizing our harm reduction resources as fentanyl use became more prevalent.”

“We must connect people to services and continue communicating to those struggling with addiction that your life is worth saving,” she said.

Vega Pederson provided additional comments about the decision on Tuesday.

“My decision to suspend Multnomah County’s distribution of smoking supplies was based on a lack of communication and poor due diligence by the Health Department. Neither my office nor our Chief Operating Officer were alerted that this program would begin on July 3. As a result, this process lacked robust community engagement, a communications plan, and a system to track outcomes. We are also expanding our legal review, as the legality of the program starting on that date is in question. 

“I am committed to efforts designed to reduce harm associated with the use of controlled substances, including fentanyl, and believe that they save lives. But outreach, accountability, and proper implementation are also key to our success in addressing the fentanyl and polysubstance abuse crisis,” she said.

What’s next for the policy is unclear at this time.

“For the time being, our focus will be on expanding our legal analysis to deepen our confidence and assurance in the scope of our operations. Additionally, we are collaborating with the chair’s office and the full board of county commissioners to establish resources and communications to support the public’s understanding of the roles of harm reduction in our communities,” Multnomah County Health Communications Coordinator Sarah Dean said.

After the policy was first announced, community members and local leaders were quick to voice their disdain toward the Multnomah County Health Department’s decision.

“I’m embarrassed, on behalf of the county. Though I’m going to say, I had no role in this and I would not have supported this had I known it was happening from the get-go,” said Sharon Meieran, Multnomah County commissioner. “It just sounds like there’s backtracking and it’s not clear who’s taking responsibility and who is responsible, how it happened. The whole thing is shameful.”

She says harm reduction methods like needle exchanges and Narcan save lives. But with her background, she isn’t aware of how this plan would reduce harm.

“I’m an ER doctor, I do street medicine and outreach, I know harm reduction and I believe in harm reduction. I have advocated for it. It is so important as an element of a comprehensive plan around addressing addiction. This is not harm reduction, it’s harm facilitation and that someone didn’t catch that or do anything about it is shocking to me,” Meieran said.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler also voiced displeasure with the decision, calling it “deeply misguided,” and saying it encourages “illegal drug use.”

Wheeler says he strongly opposed the decision and was never notified by the county about the plan to do this. He also rebutted the county’s claim there is science behind this giveaway, that it would encourage more drug users to come into county clinics and so they would get resources at the same time for how to get into drug treatment.

The mayor urges the county to hit the streets instead to get resource information out and believes that giving out free drug supplies is an invitation for more users to come to Portland.