TriMet and Other Transit Systems Push to Criminalize Drug Use on Buses and Trains

If they get their wish, smoking fentanyl on TriMet could land riders in jail.

The Oregon Transit Association, a professional coalition of city transit agencies, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, which represents bus drivers and train operators, would like to eliminate drug use on buses and trains in Oregon. To that end, the two groups are seeking legislation that would make consumption of drugs on public transit a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

Rather than inserting themselves into the messy and contentious fight over whether to roll back Measure 110, the drug decriminalization bill votes passed in 2020, the transit providers and the union chose a more elegant path. They are seeking to amend Senate Bill 1553, which directs the Oregon Health Authority to study Oregon’s addiction crisis.

The transit association (which includes TriMet, Lane Transit District, Cherriots in Salem, and numerous others) and ATU want to amend that bill by adding the consumption of drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, various opioids and cocaine, while on transit to the existing crime of interfering with public transportation.

SB 1553 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber (D-Portland), one of the leaders of the Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response, which crafted Democrats’ proposal to address Oregon’s drug overdose crisis and public concerns by recriminalizing drug possession. That proposal, House Bill 4002, got a marathon hearing Feb. 7, as criminal justice reformers advocated leaving Measure 110 unchanged and law enforcement argued for upping the consequences for public drug use to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. (Democrats have proposed making drug consumption a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to 30 days in jail.)

While the argument rages over what, if anything, to do about Measure 110, transit advocates are hoping to avoid getting sucked into that debate by focusing on a far less controversial concept: public safety.

TriMet has publicized the work of University of Washington researchers who tested air quality and surface cleanliness on transit vehicles in June 2023 and found widespread, albeit low-level, traces of methamphetamine and fentanyl. TriMet has also found that public perception of drug use on transit is part of the reason ridership continues to lag well below pre-pandemic levels. “Widespread open drug use in public spaces has contributed to a more than 30% decrease in riders who say they feel safe on TriMet over the past six years,” the agency said on its blog.

That’s why TriMet and peer agencies all over the state are seeking to restore order and public confidence.

“Public transit must feel safe and comfortable for everyone to use, particularly for the most vulnerable members of our community—many of whom rely on TriMet as a lifeline to jobs, schools and essential services,” TriMet spokeswoman Roberta Altstadt said. “No one should worry about the unpredictable and potentially dangerous behavior of people who are using illicit drugs or fear exposure to fumes, needles and residue.”

SB 1553 is scheduled for introduction at a public hearing Feb. 12 in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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