More potent, addictive form of meth impacts Portland’s homeless population

PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Two men smoked meth out of a glass pipe on the corner of Northwest 4th Avenue and Glisan Street in Portland’s Old Town on a dry December morning. One sat in a wheelchair while the other kneeled on a piece of cardboard covered in drugs, a banana, old shoes and a green-and-black scarf.

It was his third hit that morning. Typically, he said, he smokes meth 15 times a day.

“I couldn’t handle being out on the streets without drugs. It would drive me nuts,” he said. He’s been addicted to drugs, including heroin and methamphetamine, for more than 40 years.

Like a number of other homeless people KGW has spoken to within the last year, this man said that it’s incredibly easy to get these drugs on the streets of Portland.

“There have been times where I haven’t had money for three weeks and I still get high every day,” he added.

The type of methamphetamine he was smoking is known as P2P meth. It’s a smaller, more potent and highly addictive type of meth that’s becoming one of the leading drugs on Portland’s streets. Research shows that it’s causing an increase in overdose deaths. According to city data, drug overdoses among homeless people in Portland increased 94% between 2019 and 2021.

Many of those overdoses are caused by opioids, particularly fentanyl. But an increasing share are caused by meth.

“Our community is awash in these inexpensive and highly addictive drugs … fentanyl, and the drug that we’re all watching across America right now is what is called P2P meth,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler at a breakfast forum for Portland business leaders in early December where he promoted his plan to address homelessness.

“Once you use this P2P meth, it very quickly scrambles your brain permanently — meaning some of the individuals who you see who are addicted to P2P meth, they will never be able to function on their own again. They will be institutionalized, or they will be relegated to the streets for the rest of their lives,” Mayor Wheeler said.

However, local doctors like Amanda Risser, senior medical director of substance use disorder services at Central City Concern, see it differently.

“I do not think that people who use P2P meth are doomed to a lifetime of institutionalization,” Risser said. “A lot of our patients who are using fentanyl, especially if they’re experiencing homelessness, find that if they’re using methamphetamine it helps counteract the sedating effects of the fentanyl.”

Research shows people using methamphetamines can be at risk of developing a severe mental illness, but not all.

“We are seeing that folks get better with treatment, we’re seeing that folks get better when they’re housed,” Risser explained.

Risser works at Hooper Detox Stabilization Center in North Portland where they are struggling to keep up with the demand for addiction treatment services.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national survey on drug use and health, Oregon has the highest rates of methamphetamine and prescription opioid misuse in the nation. Oregon ranks first in the nation for percent of the population needing but not receiving treatment for substance use disorders, second in the nation for deaths due to drug use and sixth in the nation for deaths due to alcohol.

Portland’s health care system has been strained over the past few years, and as a result doctors are seeing people’s health worsen — like the two men smoking meth in Old Town.

Substance abuse specialists are urging local governments to invest in growing their workforce so they can keep up with the needs on the streets.

“I’m concerned with any plan that promises to connect folks with treatment that isn’t really focusing on our workforce issues, which are very serious,” said Risser.

As for those struggling with addiction and being homeless, getting clean can seem almost impossible.

“I generally end up just not following through because it takes so darn long to get in anywhere,” said one of the two Old Town men. “I wish there was more that we could do, but I don’t know — we’re too far gone.”


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