Two County Commissioners Demand Health Department Delay Plans to Distribute Foil to Fentanyl Smokers

A third commissioner has asked for “a further briefing” regarding the county’s new initiative, first reported by WW last week.

TIN MAN: A fentanyl smoker in downtown Portland displays foil, straw and lighter. (Blake Benard)

Two Multnomah County commissioners are asking the county health department to delay its plans to distribute tinfoil and straws to fentanyl smokers. WW first reported the county’s new initiative last week.

The commissioners expressed support for the county’s harm reduction efforts as overdoses from synthetic opioids have increased dramatically in recent years. But this latest move was, for some, a step too far.

“As it relates to distributing foil and straw to enable fentanyl use, there is no compelling evidence that it is comparable to safe needle exchanges or that the county currently has capacity to connect individuals to treatment who want it,” Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards says.

The county has given two rationales for the new program. First, the “smoking supplies” encourage people to stop injecting, a vector for disease, health department spokeswoman Sarah Dean says. And they encourage people who are already smoking to come into clinics, where the county can offer fentanyl test strips, Narcan, a fast-acting overdose reversal drug, and other services.

That didn’t convince Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who sharply criticized the initiative shortly after WW reported it July 7. His criticism was echoed by a string of political and media figures, including U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.), who seized on the foil distribution as the latest sign of Portland’s bedlam.

But none of those politicians has any say in Multnomah County programming. Over the weekend, WW sought comment from the five elected members of the county board, who oversee the health department.

Brim-Edwards joined Commissioner Sharon Meieran in asking the county to hold off handing out the smoking supplies, which was scheduled to begin this month in the wake of a new state law allowing the distribution of “drug paraphernalia” for harm reduction purposes.

“Not all harm reduction is created equal. Narcan distribution and syringe exchange have been proven to save lives. Distribution of safe smoking kits is done in a number of places, but it’s not clear what harm is prevented, if any. And in a system where we hold board briefings rather than take action, the idea of handing out foil and straws, essentially while Rome is burning, is ludicrous,” Commissioner Meieran says. “We do not need more briefings as people continue to literally drop dead on our streets from fentanyl overdose. It’s time to declare the fentanyl crisis a public health emergency and take action.”

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal offered a more muted response to the program: “As soon as I learned about it, I requested a further briefing from the Public Health Department, and look forward to their response to my follow-up questions,” she said in a statement.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann and County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson have yet to respond to WW’s requests for comment.

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