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Oregon county pauses plan to distribute fentanyl ‘smoking supplies’

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(The Center Square) – Multnomah County has paused its plan to distribute fentanyl smoking supplies across Portland.

“I am suspending the program pending further analysis,” Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said in a statement. “Our health department went forward with this proposal without proper implementation.”

The Multnomah County Health Department was planning to distribute straws, tin foil, glass pipes and “snorting kits” this month, according to Willamette Week. But the county paused the program after July 10 discussions with Pederson.

The MCHD is now expanding its legal analysis of the issue and working with county leadership to explain “harm reduction” to the public, according to MCHD Spokeswoman Sarah Dean.

“The health department remains confident that a robust harm reduction approach is essential to supporting our community,” Dean said. “This work is in alignment with an extensive body of public health research.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he disagreed with distributing fentanyl smoking supplies.

“I adamantly oppose distributing paraphernalia to encourage using a drug that is the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 and responsible for 190 fatal overdoses a day in the U.S.,” Wheeler said on Twitter.

Oregon voters passed Measure 110 in 2020, decriminalizing personal possession of certain amounts of hard drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Wheeler had proposed banning open-air drug use, but according to KOIN, he withdrew the proposal since the legislature passed HB 2645, which would make carrying more than one gram of drugs containing fentanyl a Class A misdemeanor.

With the influx of drugs like fentanyl, the MCHD has seen 30% fewer clients accessing its “syringe services,” according to a county statement. Officials hoped distributing smoking supplies would help them adapt.

“Relationships with people actively using substances also gives our department more insight into emerging public health issues,” the statement reads. “Research has shown a marked decrease in reported drug-related health problems among people who obtain new pipes through syringe exchange services.”

The county still plans to continue its “syringe exchange,” Dean said to The Center Square, as part of a “harm reduction” program.

The syringe exchange, hosted at multiple sites around Portland, offers drug users new syringes, “new safer injection supplies,” and new sharp object containers. It also offers disposal of used syringes, “safer sex supplies,” and overdose kits with fentanyl test strips and naloxone, an overdose treatment. The program offers risk reduction counseling, disease testing and referrals for shelter and treatment.

The county has seen fentanyl deaths increase from 26 in 2019 to 209 in 2022, Pederson said. This shows a “rapid and radical” shift toward fentanyl and synthetic opioids, according to the MCHD.

“We’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of people utilizing our harm reduction resources as fentanyl use became more prevalent,” Pederson said.

Pederson said she hopes the county will prioritize saving lives.

“We must connect people to services,” Pederson said, “and continue communicating to those struggling with addiction that your life is worth saving.”

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