The First Uses of Oregon’s New Fentanyl Possession Statute Suggest Who Will Pay

Portland cops have so far used a powerful new tool sparingly.

In June, Oregon lawmakers passed House Bill 2645, criminalizing possession of small amounts of fentanyl.

The new law, which went into effect July 28 after Gov. Tina Kotek signed it, has been touted by policymakers as a powerful new tool for law enforcement to address the rampant public use of illicit drugs. The law “addresses our primary concerns about the public health crisis unfolding on our streets,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in late June.

But, according to charging records released to WW by prosecutors, Portland cops have used it sparingly so far.

The law introduced a misdemeanor for possession of at least 1 gram or five “user units” containing detectable amounts of fentanyl, which has been included in charges referred to the Multnomah County district attorney by police agencies only four times, says DA spokeswoman Liz Merah.

Last week, prosecutors filed charges in Multnomah County Circuit Court for all of them. The defendants include a suspected drug dealer, a woman trying to enter a homeless day center with a bag of stolen mail, and a county jail inmate. In half the cases, the charge was paired with other, more serious crimes.

The number of cases may rise as police become more familiar with how to use it, and a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau says some cases may still be working their way through the system. “We are seeing positive momentum—though it will take time to train officers on the nuances of the new law,” the mayor’s office tells WW.

In the meantime, the details of these four cases offer some clues to how the law will eventually be enforced and who will be affected:

DATE: Aug. 9

LOCATION: Multnomah County Inverness Jail

CHARGES: A 28-year-old man from The Dalles was caught with contraband fentanyl while locked up in Multnomah County Jail. The circumstances, including why he was arrested and how long he was held, are unclear. But the charges signify the latest tactic to stem the flow of illicit drugs into the jail following a series of inmate deaths, some reportedly drug related. A warrant is now out for the man’s arrest after felony contraband charges, and another for misdemeanor possession, were filed Sept. 5.

DATE: Aug. 15

LOCATION: Southwest 6th Avenue and Harvey Milk Street

CHARGES: A 47-year-old houseless man was cited by Portland police for misdemeanor fentanyl possession at the downtown open-air drug market recently featured in a WW cover story (“Life in Hell,” July 26). That corner has been a target of increased police attention in recent months. Prosecutors filed charging documents Sept. 6 that provide little additional information besides the allegation that the man possessed “five user units” of fentanyl. A warrant is now out for his arrest after he failed to appear in court Sept. 12.

DATE: Aug. 28

LOCATION: PSU Parking Structure 3, Level 1

CHARGES: A campus safety officer at Portland State University caught a 41-year-old transient man sitting in a corner of the parking structure with fentanyl smoking paraphernalia, wads of cash, and an electronic scale. Nearby was a bag containing “postage-stamp”-sized plastic baggies full of fentanyl, which had a combined weight of 1.57 grams. The cop wrote him a citation for trespassing and drug dealing near a school, and ordered him off the PSU campus. On Sept. 5, prosecutors charged him instead with misdemeanor fentanyl possession. He’s scheduled to appear in court early next month.

DATE: Sept. 1

LOCATION: Transition Projects Resource Center, near Union Station downtown

CHARGES: A 36-year-old houseless woman was trying to get into the shelter’s day center when someone called the police. She had an outstanding warrant related to 2022 charges of making fraudulent health care claims to the state—as well as a backpack full of stolen mail, including driver’s licenses from three states, debit cards, and nine checkbooks.

The woman was booked in jail on a dozen charges of felony identity theft. And, because she had 10 counterfeit oxycodone pills hidden in her bra and elsewhere, she was also charged with misdemeanor possession. A warrant is once again out for her arrest after she failed to appear in court.

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