PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — March 29 was a relatively mild Wednesday in Portland. In a short walk from Mother’s Bistro, Chef Lisa Schroeder arrives at a public market. But she’s not buying anything at the meth and fentanyl supermarket at SW 4th and Washington.

Portland’s public fentanyl market surrounds a vacant building. People pull up in their cars, do a deal, pull out their foil and smoke. Drug dealers and drug users are the visible faces of the human tragedy of addiction.

This fentanyl market began attracting people in late January after Portland police swept them from a parking lot across from Mother’s Bistro.

Lisa Schroeder of Mother's Bistro walks through SW 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, March 29, 2023 (KOIN)
Lisa Schroeder of Mother’s Bistro walks through SW 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, March 29, 2023 (KOIN)

“We’re in downtown Portland. It’s a free country. Anybody can walk on the street,” Schroeder told KOIN 6 News as she pointed to a man with a knife on the sidewalk. “But here, what you find, let’s say someone is going to their job, right? Somebody’s on their way to work and somebody decides to take, somebody is cutting open their leg. Cutting open their leg!”

There he was, a man cutting at his leg. Others were strung out and passed out, openly buying and using drugs. But the pictures can’t capture the stench of urine and garbage or the acrid smell of fentanyl smoke.

“The guys have their hoodies on their heads covered up with a blanket so they can smoke their pipe. They’ve got their foil here. They are lined up smoking. The deals happen,” she said.

“What I want people to understand, yes, there are homeless that need our compassion and our care. And there are drug users whose main reason for being is to get their drugs, use their drug and get more of their drug. This is what is killing Portland.”

Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, April 12, 2023 (KOIN)
Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, April 12, 2023 (KOIN)

At that moment a big guy in a plaid shirt comes over. “Stop stepping over these people. They’re not people, right? I’m tired of seeing Teslas walk by and see people dying and struggling to survive and they don’t give a —- about us, man. Don’t judge. I can’t judge nobody. Don’t judge us. Come,” as he walks away.

Another guy chimed in. “Oh, what’s worse is treat us like we choose to be out here. A lot of us not choose to be out here. A lot of us medicate with whatever we can get.”

Schroeder continued talking with KOIN 6 News.

“The RVs you see around town are not. They’re the drug dealers. They buy their users tents. The tents set up around the RV and every time they need a fix they go to their dealer in the RV. Some have even said, ‘We’ll trade tricks for fentanyl on the door of the RV.’ But this is what we’re seeing. It’s not a lot of these RVs. And all that garbage, it’s not somebody down on their luck. It’s the drugs.”

Other people approach, including a man named Ryan. He said he was addicted to fentanyl but is now clean — and he doesn’t like what he’s seeing at SW 4th and Washington.

“It’s horrible. Honestly it’s not something anybody should want to go through or see, as a matter of fact,” Ryan said. “You gonna want to help yourself before you know you can help anybody else. A lot of people are on the streets. Been here 25, 30 years homeless, yeah, by choice. Like you said, by choice. And it’s sad, you know? Because people gotta use, you know, to stay well.”

Schroeder said people need to realize “they’re not here to harm us. They’re not harming us. They’re killing themselves. But they’re not harming us and it’s not that we need to have fear. This is nothing to be afraid of except that it’s killing people. And it’s killing our city.”

People gathered outside Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, April 11, 2023 (KOIN)
People gathered outside Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, April 11, 2023 (KOIN)

Friday, March 31 was rainy and cold in Portland. In a 12-hour period, Central Precinct officers responded to 11 overdose calls in downtown, including 4 in just one hour. They administered Narcan to counteract the likely opiod overdose to 6 people. But it was too late to save 3 people.

The majority of the overdoses were linked to fentanyl. Almost all the calls were in the vicinity of SW 4th and Washington.

But the tragedy had little effect. After a few hours, the open air fentanyl market was back in business and flourishing.

It was dark, kind of blustery on the night of April 5. Shortly before midnight the night version of the fentanyl market looked surreal, like something from a horror movie.

People aimlessly wander around. Dealers openly sell and advertise fentanyl. Others are unresponsive, huddled and curled up against the building, along the sidewalk, in the dark corners and doorways, among the trash and debris.

It’s worse at night. It’s easy to see flames from lighters as people heat up the foil to inhale the fentanyl smoke.

Over the next few weeks, KOIN 6 News continued to document what was happening at the site during the day and at night. The problem, though, was not centered just around this building but scattered to nearby streets and sidewalks.

We weren’t welcome in the area. Someone even threw a bottle at our car.

There was a light rain when daylight broke around 7 a.m. on April 10. After repeated media stories and pressure from downtown businesses, Portland police swept in and cleared out the block. They also cleared out the inside of the building where people had broken in.

Crews boarded up the building, blocked off outside stairs and ledges.

A contractor begins to board up Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, April 12, 2023 (KOIN)
A contractor begins to board up Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, April 12, 2023 (KOIN)

But when the police stopped their patrols, the sellers, the users, the fentanyl all came back. Those who didn’t return simply scattered to nearby doorways and corners.

Dr. Keith Humphreys of Stanford University, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is considered an expert on addiction. He points to Oregon voters approving Measure 110, decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs.

“When polls show the public is against it, police kind of say, ‘Alright, we’re kind of out of this,'” Humphreys told KOIN 6 News. “No matter how this comes out the public is giving us a message to back off.”

“And that,” he said, “is the message police have gotten in Oregon. ‘OK, the public doesn’t want us doing anything about drugs and we got a lot to do, so we’ll do other things.'”

Stanford University Professor Keith Humphreys, May 4, 2023 (KOIN)
Stanford University Professor Keith Humphreys, May 4, 2023 (KOIN)

Even though Measure 110 decriminalized drugs, police can issue citations, up to a $100 fine which can be dismissed if the person calls a hotline offering screening and help for drug addiction.

Since Measure 110 took effect in February 2021, police have issued 4451 citations. A majority of people — 3057, or 69% — ignored the ticket, didn’t pay the fine or show up to court. Only 189 who called the hotline completed substance use screening, according to Lines for Life, which operates the hotline.

“The ticketing system that Oregon set up clearly is a failure,” Humphreys said. “Less than 1% of people called the line that was set up, and of those, hardly any asked for treatment. I don’t know if they can document that a single person even went to treatment because of that.”

There are 2 glaring problems with Measure 110, he said, something he warned Oregon lawmakers about before it was enacted. It doesn’t do anything to stop or limit the supply of drugs and it fails to hold the addicted person accountable to seek treatment.

“As long as drugs are extremely available and open air markets are completely tolerated, as long as you know people can commit property crimes over and over again on drugs and not experience any consequences there’s going to be an awful lot of drug use and an awful lot of harm both to the people who use drugs and also to everybody else,” he said. “That’s the thing I think Oregon is going to have to grapple with.”

Those same concerns were echoed in a recent KOIN 6 Town Hall on addiction and Measure 110.

Portland Police Association President Aaron Schmautz said, “I’m listening to someone say what police should enforce. But the tools to do that come from the community telling us what we can and cannot do. The ability to interdict, the ability to go and seek out people to help them but also for law enforcement because we are the first to respond to so many different crises.”

Humphreys said he is not advocating for Oregon to scrap Measure 110. Instead, he suggests taking a hard look at what is working — and especially what isn’t.

“I think that’s happening. That is making some people rethink their position on these things, that when you live under a system where you know open air drug markets are fine, where addiction is rampant, where crime is rampant and no one does anything that’s genuinely painful — but it’s also sometime how we learn what it is we do not want to do in our lives.”

Saturday, May 6 was a pleasant spring day. Around 9:30 a.m. a few people gathered again at SW 4th and Washington. The area has seen some improvements after repeated sweeps and cleanups. Those who don’t keep coming back just scattered elsewhere downtown.

Lisa Schroeder — and Mother’s Bistro — have been part of downtown for decades. She said she will never lose her love and optimism for what Portland can be.

Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, May 6, 2023 (KOIN)
Southwest 4th and Washington in downtown Portland, May 6, 2023 (KOIN)

But lately she has her doubts.

“I’m starting to get worried,” Schroeder said. “I’m starting. The drugs are scaring me and until we get a handle on these drugs I’m not confident. I was very confident until I saw what is happening with fentanyl and meth and what it is doing to people’s brains. Until we get a handle on this I don’t know what the answer is.”