Our Opinion: Are needles the new symbol of Portland?
The proliferation of dirty needles being tossed on the ground in Portland is a dreary symptom of the city's deeper problems.
These underlying issues include an incomprehensible and growing tolerance for destructive behaviors that damage livability. Among the concerns needing greater attention are the addiction crisis, fed by the opioid epidemic, and a scarcity of treatment options for drug addicts. But there also is a lack of enforcement when the desperate lives of addicts spill into full public view in the city's parks, on its sidewalks and under its bridges.
Portland and Multnomah County officials must get a grip on these quality of life issues, or they will allow this community to be defined by its gritty street life, rather than its magnificent parks and robust economy.
Or, as Portland Police Captain Mark Kruger (speaking for himself, not his department) put it in a March 8 Portland Tribune article: "Needles are going to replace the rose as the city of Portland's signature plant."
Kruger's observation is reinforced by a letter from the Goose Hollow Foothills League to Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran. "We are drowning in the needles put out into the community by Multnomah County," the letter states.
The Goose Hollow neighbors say they are picking up hundreds of needles each week, and describe finding bloody cotton balls and feces-covered wipes.
No neighborhood should be confronted with these types of health and safety issues. But statistics show that used syringes and needles are a problem in many areas of Portland. On the positive side — if anything related to addiction can be called positive — a needle exchange program funded by Multnomah County processed 5.5 million syringes last year, up from 4 million in 2016. That is a sign that the program is working, as well as an indication of the vast nature of the addiction epidemic.
However, while the exchange program is estimating a 100 percent return rate for its syringes, it obviously isn't capturing all the needles in use. Beyond the evidence provided by Goose Hollow residents is a report from Portland Clean and Safe workers that the number of used needles picked up on downtown sidewalks has climbed from nearly 17,000 to 28,000 in one year. What a pleasant sight that must be for first-time visitors to Portland as they step carefully around those discarded syringes.
One potential solution to the needle problem is to have more drop boxes for safe disposal of syringes, which are a hazardous medical waste. Currently, there is just one such disposal box in the region. Multnomah County was supposed to have added four more, but that hasn't happened yet. Meanwhile, the city, Metro (which is responsible for waste disposal), TriMet and other organizations are working on a secret plan to increase significantly the number of drop boxes in Multnomah County.
They should let the rest of us in on the secret, but also look at the larger picture. More drop boxes, based on the experience of other cities, may help stem the flood of needles littering the local landscape. The idea in Portland of using existing public facilities — such as light-rail and fire stations — for disposal sites is promising. But better disposal of syringes, in and of itself, does nothing to treat and prevent drug addiction.
In Oregon and nationally, measures are being taken to stop the overuse of prescription opioids and find better ways to treat those who become addicted. However, it will take years for those restrictions and initiatives to bring about a marked decrease in current addiction rates. Greater availability of treatment is needed for addicts today. Also essential are appropriate incentives to push people into treatment programs. While decriminalizing drug possession has been embraced by state and local authorities, more can and should be done to encourage addicts to seek a different life.
People who become addicted to drugs deserve compassionate options to break their addictions. But Portland's residents and neighborhoods also deserve to be free of hazardous waste and the behaviors that openly accompany it.