What’s up with Portland?
What’s up is drugs. And not just Portland, but all of Oregon: The state’s high rates of addiction make it fourth highest in the US (while being ranked only 27th in population). In Oregon, meth use and trafficking are also up. The drug also presents the state with its greatest drug threat – over the last six years meth-related arrests have doubled. Following meth are heroin, marijuana, prescription drugs, cocaine, and synthetic designer drugs.
Heroin use has increased in most U.S. cities, but not as dramatically as it has risen in Portland: Heroin is the city’s second biggest threat. In Portland, heroin use has risen so dramatically that it accounts for nearly as many deaths among young and middle-aged men as cancer or heart disease. Participation in Portland’s needle exchange program have also surged.
Some hope: Due possibly to the rise in the use of drugs like meth and heroin, cocaine abuse has dropped. State seizures have fallen as well as the number of people admitted into treatment for cocaine addiction in the region, dropping by 80%.
The Way of the Drug
Because of its proximity to major highways, rail lines, and airports, the city of Portland and its surrounding areas serve as the main hub in the Northwest’s drug trade. Most of the drugs come along the I-5: Heroin, cocaine, meth, and marijuana up from Mexican cartels from the south and high-potency BC Bud and MDMA down from Canada in the north. They’re smuggled into Oregon by way of cars, trucks, planes, and on individuals. Drugs are then taken to “stash houses” where they are divided into smaller loads. Drug sales are most highly concentrated near the MAX light-rail line. Other areas in the city with high drug traffic include Water Front Park, Old Town, Pioneer Square, and Lloyd Center. A report published by the Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program (HIDTA) warns that we can expect trafficking of meth, heroin, and prescription drugs to only increase in the future1. Since 2007, heroin seizures in Portland have increased by more than 900%.
Crime and Cartels
Portland’s Chief of Police, Vern Malloch, stated at a news conference in 2015 that based on interviews the department had with convicted robbers, “in the vast majority, over 90% of the time, they’re feeding a drug habit.” Nationally, estimates are 80% of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol and nearly 50% of prison inmates are clinically addictied2. Of those arrested, nearly 60% test positive for illegal drugs. When it comes to children and teens, four of every five are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. What are the crimes most associated with those looking to support drug habits? They can include identity theft, abused and neglected children, and other serious crimes against persons and property.
Scaling up to the organized crime of the drug traffickers and cartels, you can add murder, battery, and other terrorist-type acts like bombing and mass shootings. This is not something that is happening in faraway places; it’s happening right here in Portland. Law enforcement says that there are as many as 69 drug trafficking organizations selling drugs in the state, nearly all of it supplied by the Mexican cartels. It is believed that the cartels and their allies control nearly every grain of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine entering the region. Drugs enter the state by the tons and its profits leave the state by the millions. Violence is used by cartels to control territory, settle debts, and terrorize rivals and witnesses. In recent years, Oregon has seen bombings and executions, often in multiples3. Because of this, many cartel crimes are never solved – witnesses are silenced and perpetrators disappear back across the Mexican border. John Deits, the assistant U.S. attorney who oversees federal drug prosecutions in Oregon, says he doesn’t believe locals fully understand the gravity about what is going on around them. They are “totally naïve, totally out of touch with what is happening,” he says.
Law enforcement saw the first signs of Mexican drug cartels gaining a foothold in Oregon going back to 2005. Drug raids uncovered dramatically bigger volumes of contraband. Investigations traced the trafficking organizations back to Mexico. In recent years, groups have splintered in to smaller subsets making them even more difficult to track. The Mexican government calls them organized crime groups. With their success in Oregon, cartels have been expanding their control of drug distribution networks throughout the Northwest and across the U.S.
Other Black Market Green
The cartels have also gone big with pot plantations hidden in Oregon’s forests. And the plantations have gotten larger: Where back in 2005 a 300 plant operation was seen as a big bust, more recently law enforcement has discovered grow operations 10 times that size. These operations have quietly taken over miles of public land in dozens of counties in Oregon and Washington, creating a multi-billion dollar industry. The damages from these operations can be extensive, going well beyond the drug trade. Pot plantations can create significant damage to land, waterways, and wildlife. Workers are often armed and pose threats to public safety. Domestic marijuana farming can be extremely lucrative. According to a Rand study, a pound of marijuana that costs about $30 to produce on a plantation can be sold on the east coast for as much as $7,0003.
On Portland Streets
In 2015, gang violence and crime in Portland reached heights the city had never seen. Connecting gangs to the cartels can be difficult. Most gang violence is committed against rival gang members and they rarely talk to police about crimes. Police believe that gang crime is one of the biggest problems in the area, especially in their control of the Portland drug trade. A large portion of serious violent crimes like shootings and homicides have some gang affiliation. Gangs are not only expanding into other geographical areas, they’re also expanding their crime base, diversifying their criminal activities into organized retail theft and trafficking females in the sex trade.
The Reason They’re Here
At the bottom of it all is need: Cartels and much of gang activity exists because there is a need for drugs. The U.S. and Oregon have a big appetite for drugs. If recent seizures are any indication, that appetite is only increasing. This appetite feeds the supply and the organizations that have grown to provide that supply.
Studies have indicated that in Oregon, deaths by heroin overdose have grown from a couple a dozen a year in 2000 to an average of more than 100 a year for the past 5 years. Oregon, has the highest rate of opiate abuse for those under 25 than anywhere else in the country. Drug related deaths have also risen dramatically for cocaine and methamphetamine.
This is the tragedy of why the cartels are here: Americans want for drugs. Cheap, potent, and more available than ever, drugs are not going to go away until we learn as a society to curb that desire. If there is any positive outcome to emerge from these acts of drug-related violence it is this: These extreme acts make our drug will make our problem more visible to more people.
Perhaps, at last, with more visibility will come change.
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- Threat Assessment and Counter-Drug Strategy, Program Year 2016, Oregon High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program (HIDTA)