September 24, 2023

Halfway into asking Portland police officer David Baer what he thinks has happened to his hometown over the past three years – why what used to be one of America’s fastest-growing cities is now rapidly shrinking and has become the right’s favorite laughingstock – I’m cut off. 

Mr. Baer had been biking ahead of me, pumping uphill in a downtown that feels eerily quiet for a city of 635,000. He cuts to the left and, in one fell swoop, pulls a spike strip out of its holster and plants it on the street in front of a parked car. Mr. Baer raps on the window, instructing the driver to get out. The man, bent over a straw and piece of foil, protests.

“I saw you smoking fentanyl,” says Officer Baer. The man concedes. 

Why We Wrote This

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What’s the most compassionate way to treat those experiencing addiction? Having decriminalized drugs, Oregon is trying to figure that out.

“Just …” Mr. Baer hesitates before removing the spike strip and re-straddling his bike. “Please don’t do it in public,” he says, and pedals off.

In November 2020, Oregonians overwhelmingly passed referendum Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, which decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs. Voters in the first (and so far only) state to do so believed they were leading America’s first drug policy overhaul since the war on drugs – an anti-drug campaign initiated in 1971 by President Richard Nixon and expanded in the next decade by President Ronald Reagan. 

The war on drugs encouraged criminal punishment for drug-related offenses, including possession, and dramatically increased the incarceration of drug users. For decades, members of racial minority groups have been disproportionately targeted and jailed for drug possession, Measure 110 advocates argued, with nothing to show for these policies but an ongoing national drug epidemic. So Oregon, with its history of pushing bold social policy, decided to try something different. 

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