PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – In a controversial new policy, the Multnomah County Health Department plans to distribute aluminum foil and straws to fentanyl smokers in Portland in July, officials say.
Spokesperson Sarah Dean confirmed to KOIN 6 that city officials announced their plan to distribute the supplies in a PowerPoint presentation last week. The supplies will also include glass pipes and snorting kits.
As first reported by the Willamette Week, Dean said the rise of fentanyl has decreased the demand for needle-focused “harm reduction” services. Because fentanyl is typically smoked rather than injected, she said visits to clinics have recently dropped 60% since 2019.
Jessica Guernsey, Multnomah County public health director, said the city needs innovative strategies.
“The new part of the program is that we’re adding supplies for people who smoke drugs,” Guernsey said. “We’ve seen a shift from injection drug use to smoking drug use, so that we can engage people who may not otherwise engage in services.”
The addition comes at the request of the county’s public health team, officials say, just a month after they presented on the success of their syringe exchange program.
But not all are convinced that this program is a good use of taxpayer dollars.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he “adamantly” opposes the decision to distribute the drug paraphernalia, adding that fentanyl is the leading cause of death for U.S. citizens who are less than 50 years old.
“This misguided approach also results in greater risk to public safety for those who simply want to enjoy our city without walking through a cloud of toxic smoke,” Wheeler said. “Our community would benefit more from the County using its funding to urgently increase treatment and sobering facilities rather than actively enabling this deadly epidemic.”
However, Dean told KOIN 6 that access to supplies does not increase illegal drug use, but rather it encourages those with addictions to visit clinics, which offer fentanyl test strips and Narcan.
“Building relationships with people actively using substances also gives our department more insight into emerging public health issues that impact this population,” she said. “We are able to directly hear from our clients when there are concerning changes to the drug supply, increased wound issues, or other related issues that are of public health concern.”
Dean also noted that the Oregon Legislature recently passed a bill to decriminalize the distribution of drug paraphernalia. It now holds on Gov. Tina Kotek’s signature before going into law.
“While we all understand that abstinence from drug use is the safest, the people who are seeking out services are doing so because they are already using substances,” she said. “Providing these supplies will give clients more options around routes of administration for their substances. Providing tools for non-injection routes of administration may encourage some people to reduce their injection.”
“I follow the science, and the science tells us that programs like syringe exchange and harm reduction saves lives,” she said. “I know some of these methods can be controversial, but that’s what we’re really looking at; the severe risk of overdose and death and using the science to build a bridge to prevent that.”
Stay with KOIN 6 as this story develops.