PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A plan by Oregon's largest county to distribute tin foil and straws for fentanyl users and glass pipes for methamphetamine and crack users has been halted after opposition from Portland's mayor and other officials.
"Our health department went forward with this proposal without proper implementation protocols," Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said in a statement to KGW-TV. "And in that light, I am suspending the program pending further analysis."
The Multnomah County Health Department earlier this month updated its harm reduction program to include the distribution of smoking materials to people using drugs after noticing a drop in the number of drug users who sought out clean syringes from county workers. The workers also provide the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan and attempt to point users to possible treatment options.
"If they're not coming into any health services at all, if we're not engaging them at all, quite honestly people die in the shadows," Jessica Guernsey, Multnomah County's public health director, told KGW-TV, "and that's what we're trying to avoid."
Like many states around the country, Oregon has grappled with a surge in opioid overdose deaths. In Portland, the county seat, police this year have investigated more than 130 overdose deaths — many of them fueled by fentanyl, a highly addictive and potentially lethal drug.
On July 7, the Multnomah County Health Department confirmed plans to begin distributing smoking materials and "snorting kits" to those who inhale drugs.
But high-ranking government leaders in Portland — including Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Rene Gonzalez — soon opposed the plans.
"There was no notification to me or to any of my colleagues," Wheeler told KGW-TV. "Obviously, this is something we would have wanted to have a voice in. We would have opposed it."
In a statement following the pause, a Multnomah County Health Department spokesperson said the office would focus on "expanding our legal analysis to deepen our confidence and assurance in the scope of our operations."