Dont let drugs doom Old Town

Our Opinion

An accumulation of poor choices has led to the unacceptable situation that now exists in Portland's Old Town.

As reported in the Tribune last Thursday, Old Town is being overrun with crack cocaine dealers who have become more brazen and confrontational in recent months. The aggressiveness of drug dealers and addicts threatens this valued neighborhood's quality of life.

We can identify several factors - and policy changes - that contribute to Old Town's problems. Business owners say the drug dealing started to expand after the city opted in 2007 not to continue the Drug and Prostitution Free Exclusion Zone for that area of the city. When such zones are in place, people who have a prior record for breaking drug or prostitution laws are prohibited from entering the area - and that has the effect of dispersing illegal activities beyond just one neighborhood.

Other policy changes have occurred as well. Multnomah County commissioners, for example, decided last year not to fund district attorney positions that prosecute minor crimes, including possession of very small amounts of drugs. In turn, District Attorney Michael Schrunk announced that, because of the budget cuts, his office would have to treat these crimes as violations - much like traffic tickets.

Criminals in Old Town are enjoying this newfound immunity.

Police presence also is far less than ideal for Old Town. Reductions in Portland's police force have left just one officer to cover a wide area that includes Old Town, which means that officer has no backup when he or she is confronting criminal and potentially violent activities.

Is this really what we want?

When you add these specific policy concerns to Portland's general lassie-faire attitude toward low-level street crime, what you end up with are districts - and Old Town isn't the only one - where dealers, addicts, prostitutes and pimps are comfortable, but the rest of the public is not.

People, including Mayor Sam Adams, already are doubting the wisdom of bringing back the Drug and Prostitution Free Exclusion Zone - which was allowed to expire because of concerns about racial profiling. Citizens also will hotly debate whether prosecuting minor crimes is the answer and whether more funding for the Police Bureau will help.

But as civil libertarians and law-and-order advocates line up on either side, an underlying essential question doesn't get fully addressed: Is the status quo in Old Town acceptable to this community?

Is it OK for crack dealers and addicts to be doing business openly in what is widely known as Crack Alley? Do Old Town residents, businesses and Portland leaders believe this situation is good for livability, for the economy and for the addicts themselves who ought to be getting aggressive help for their substance-abuse problems?

Find the resources to help

There is nothing compassionate or civilly liberating about allowing drug addicts and pushers to openly buy, sell and consume their wares on city streets. And certainly, it's not a safe environment for the public.

Regardless of the existence - or nonexistence - of a drug-free zone, and regardless of the budget challenges for either the county or the city, something must be done.

Portland's City Council and Multnomah County commissioners must independently re-examine priorities and find the resources to provide stepped-up enforcement and prosecution of drug laws in Old Town and elsewhere.

Yes, such enforcement in selected districts may simply spread the problem out - but no single neighborhood should be asked to bear the safety, livability and economic burden that comes with being labeled a Crack Alley.