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Substance Abuse


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Substance abuse is a growing problem that threatens Portland’s livability.

Section Summary

Portlanders share the perception that substance abuse is becoming a growing problem in our community. Community members express concern for their personal safety, the safety of their families and the safety, livability and desirability of the city’s neighborhoods. They also express concern for the community’s children, who are exposed to frequent and visible drug use in a variety of public settings.

When discussing substance abuse, Portlanders focus primarily on highly addictive substances, such as “hard” drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, while generally making exceptions for marijuana. They also link substance abuse to homelessness, expressing the belief that many “street people” abuse drugs and alcohol, contributing to unsafe and unsightly streets downtown. Some Portlanders praise the success and effectiveness of existing recovery programs, while many call for even more services to help people overcome addiction and re-integrate into society. Others, however, oppose addiction services, preferring strict enforcement of the law and prison sentences for those who use and abuse illegal substances.

Note: This section contains content and themes that overlap significantly with those discussed in the following sections: Social Issues: Homelessness, Urban Livability: City Appearance, and Public Safety: General.

Summary of Main Ideas

  1. Substance abuse is a growing problem that threatens Portland’s livability.
  2. Visible drug use among youth threatens the future of all of Portland’s children.
  3. We should limit the use of legal addictive substances such as cigarettes and alcohol.
  4. Portland offers many effective recovery and rehabilitation programs.

Summary of Tensions and Disagreements

  1. What is the appropriate community response to substance abuse?


  1. Substance abuse is a growing problem that threatens Portland’s livability.
  • Many Portlanders express concern over what they perceive as increased levels of drug use in the community.
  • Respondents mention witnessing increased drug use and drug dealing activity in the following locations:
    • In parks, both downtown and in neighborhoods;
    • On the MAX and at MAX and bus stops;
    • Along West Burnside between 2nd and 5th and in Chinatown; and
    • Along the Waterfront downtown.
  • Portlanders are very worried about the use and abuse of “hard” drugs such as methamphetamine (“meth”), heroine, cocaine and crack cocaine. The use of these drugs is linked to:
    • Increased levels of theft and crime in neighborhoods;
    • Increased levels of homelessness;
    • The perpetuation of cycles of abuse and neglect within families;
    • The deterioration of cleanliness, safety and livability downtown, especially along Burnside, in Pioneer Courthouse Square and in downtown parks; and
    • Decreased property values and livability in highly affected neighborhoods, such as outer Southeast Portland, Rockwood and some East Portland neighborhoods.
  • Many people believe that the homeless and “street people” downtown are also drug users and/or drug addicts and that the money they ask for fuels their drug use (see Social Issues: Homelessness).
  • Portlanders agree on a vision of the future in which drug use and abuse is drastically reduced.
“Drug abuse is rampant in Portland. I do not believe the addicts add to Portland’s charm.”

“I’ve also noticed more of a drug problem lately. I moved away to the east coast for a year and just came back this spring and saw this change that was discouraging and I hope to see it taken care of.”

“I would like to see less meth-induced crime and devaluation of property values in SE Portland, and a plan to clean up outer SE; perhaps with neighborhood centers and artistic outreach programs for youth in those neighborhoods.”

“I’d like to see this city without so many ‘tweakers.’ I think this city needs to focus on getting rid of drug dealers. Almost every other day someone tried to sell drugs to me.”

Sample Strategies:

  1. Collaborate between sectors to decrease substance abuse (says one Portlander, "Draw a triangle with church, community and local government at the 3 points.").
  2. Increase police presence in areas where drug dealing occurs; for example, increase the use of mounted police in parks and along the waterfront.
  3. Increase resources for the Multnomah County Drug Court Program (S.T.O.P.) and the treatment provider InAct.
  4. “More awareness of the business community’s knowledge of the drug problem and how they might be part of the solution. Keep people employed and on health care.”
  5. Legalize marijuana in order to free up resources to aggressively combat the production, sale, and use of meth, cocaine and other highly destructive drugs.
  6. Start addressing the root causes of substance abuse and addiction.

  1. Visible drug use among youth threatens the future of all of Portland’s children.
  • Respondents express concern over the number of street youth using drugs in downtown Portland, fearing that this sets a negative example for other youth.
  • Drug use among youth is also linked to gang activity, drop-out rates and violent crime committed by youth.
  • Some respondents would like to see street youth with substance abuse problems treated for their addictions, both for their sake and for the community’s health and well-being.
“I would like to see the panhandlers and homeless teens off of our downtown sidewalks. People should not be allowed to openly do and sell drugs in Waterfront Park like they do. What happened to the horse patrols that used to go through the park?”

“[G]ive people options…[people] use drugs as a response to despair. There is a connection between low school graduation rates among and drug abuse within the African American community.”

“[In the future] people are working/off the streets/off drugs. Kids are taken care of and loved by their families – not neglected and abused. Kids are being educated and nurtured to blossom, be healthy & eventually take a productive place in society for Portland to be a great city.”

Sample Strategies:

  1. Increase and improve early education on the harmful and destructive effects of drug addiction.
  2. Provide youth with positive adult role models who are not sports or entertainment stars, with their frequently-reported drug and alcohol use problems.
  3. Create more commercials and public service messages about the harmful effects of drugs such as meth, crack and cocaine.
  4. Improve the public education system to keep youth excited about and engaged in learning and productive behavior.
  5. “Help for the mentally ill and the children of drug and alcohol abusers. We need to spend money at the root of the problem and not at the end result.”

  1. We should also limit the use of legal addictive substances such as cigarettes and alcohol.
  • To a lesser extent, Portlanders are worried about the abuse of legal substances such as hard alcohol and cigarettes. Some respondents consider these substances to be more harmful than illegal drugs such as marijuana.
  • Many Portlanders advocate for Oregon to follow Washington and California in prohibiting smoking in restaurants and bars.
  • People applaud the city’s decision to make public places like Pioneer Square and Tri-met stops non-smoking.
  • Some respondents want smoking banned throughout Oregon, including public areas like downtown.

Sample Strategies:

  1. Raise cigarette and tobacco tax in the city limits.
  2. Create stronger campaigns to educate children.
  3. Expand the hours of public transportation, specifically the MAX, to persuade people not to drink and drive.
  4. Create a beer and wine tax to fund drug prevention programs.
  5. Eliminate billboards advertising alcohol, gambling, and smoking.

  1. Portland offers many effective recovery and rehabilitation programs.
  • Respondents want to draw attention to the wonderful work that is currently underway to rehabilitate those recovering from addictions. Former addicts speak of Portland as a place where they were able to get clean and re-integrate into society.
  • Frequently-mentioned services for drug users and addicts include:
    • The Drug Court of Multnomah County (S.T.O.P);
    • The Detox Center;
    • The treatment provider InAct; and
    • Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.)
  • Community members commend these programs for how well they work and the positive difference they make in the lives of addicts and their families.
  • Many Portlanders are convinced that rehabilitation and treatment programs like these should be used instead of incarceration, which they believe is more costly to society in the long run.
  • In addition to treatment centers, rehabilitation centers and recovery programs, people also value services such as free syringe exchange and good support networks for people in recovery.
  • People want increased funding to improve existing programs and to create more programs to serve more people.
“As a recovering attick [sic], I value all the help that I received in Portland…I was employed by Portland Parks and Recreation when I only had 9 months clean. Soon I will have 4 years clean. And with the help of Portlanders, I was able to transition into society. I love the people.”

“[Portland] is where I have learned recovery and am beginning to make my life with a positive future.”

“[In the future] the City has led a partnership program to engage businesses in drug treatment services. Co-sharing of job training and a commitment to help people help themselves.”

Sample Strategies:

  1. “Create more housing programs for single mothers in recovery.”
  2. Move recovery housing from places where drug dealing is occurring.
  3. Open facilities for people on meth; set up programs to find and treat meth abusers.
  4. “Maybe more rehab clinics? Really drug use is totally a personal choice and I'm not sure how you could possibly change that, the prison system definitely isn’t the answer. Maybe free personal and life counseling to everyone…”


  1. What is the appropriate community response to substance abuse?

    While Portlanders agree that the criminal act of manufacturing and selling drugs should be dealt with as harshly as possible, opinions are deeply divided on the issue of how to deal with substance abusers. The primary disagreement is between those who see substance abuse as a health issue that requires prevention and treatment and those who see substance abuse as criminal activity that must not be tolerated and should be punished under the law.

    Many Portlanders see addiction as a tragic illness and feel compassion for those individuals who become addicted to substances, whether they be legal substances such as alcohol or illegal substances such as meth, cocaine and other “hard” drugs. These respondents believe that the only appropriate and effective response to substance abuse is to provide abusers with the treatment and services they need to overcome their addictions, re-integrate into their families and communities and become productive members of society. They advocate for increased resources for detoxification and rehabilitation as well as longer-term services such as job skills counseling, mental health counseling and other services that people with addictions need to get to the point where they can turn their lives around.

"[I would like to see] commitment to helping get people with mental illness or addiction off the streets and into care or rehab facilities to treat them, not putting them in jail or ignoring them.”

Many others, however, hold a very different view of substance abuse. These Portlanders see drug use as a form of criminal activity and believe that drug users, as well as those who eventually become addicted, should be held accountable and punished like other criminals. They believe that Portland is “too soft” on drug users and that the availability of services such as syringe exchange, counseling and housing for drug users only exacerbates the problem. They advocate a “get tough” approach and want to see drug users off the streets and in jails, believing this is the only way to create cleaner, safer streets and environments for law-abiding Portlanders, and especially for children.

"Portland needs to hold the bar higher for people. They need to expect accountability. We need to stop reinforcing the idea that people can’t do it themselves. What do you have when you sober up a horse thief? A sober horse thief. What happens when we instill and reinforce entitlement issues in criminal, homeless people, and addicts? Portland needs to help people who are willing to do the hard work and stop throwing money at those who don’t want a better life.”

"Stop the crime and drugs. Put people in jail and keep them there.”

Still others do not subscribe to either of these positions. These Portlanders do not see treatment or law enforcement as the answer, but would rather prefer to see resources re-directed towards prevention. From this perspective, the important thing is to break cycles of addiction and prevent children and individuals from becoming addicted in the first place. Placing people with addiction issues in jail or serving them only when their drug use has compromised their quality of life does little to actually reduce rates of substance abuse over the long term. Instead, resources should be spent on education, family counseling and other services that can prevent people from turning to drugs and other addictive substances in the first place.

“Focus on health and prevention instead of pathology and services for those who have fallen.”

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