“Nothing about us without us.”

Portland is in the midst of an addiction crisis. Four council candidates in long-term recovery say they can help.

Maja Viklands Harris Avatar

Mike Marshall, a candidate for Portland City Council in District 2, recalls a doctor’s appointment where his history of alcoholism and meth addiction went unmentioned. Puzzled, Marshall inquired if the doctor had any questions about his recovery.

The response? We didn’t want to embarrass you.

“Embarrass me? My greatest achievement is my recovery from addiction,” says Marshall, a director and co-founder of Oregon Recovers, a statewide coalition comprised of people in recovery from addiction.

“Being in recovery means being of service.”

Now sixteen years sober, Marshall is running for council on an ambitious platform. He wants to establish four new sobering centers, triple the city’s detox capacity, and add over seven hundred new recovery beds. His chief motivation? Local government’s failure to open a new sobering station after Central City Concern’s downtown location was shut down in 2020.

“It’s just complete dysfunction. And I think the reason is that there’s no one in recovery on the county commission or at City Hall who’s on fire about this issue.”

Marshall is one of four council candidates who openly discuss their long-term recovery on the campaign trail. Three of them, including Marshall, have close ties to Oregon Recovers.

“There’s a reason folks like us are running for office,” Marshall says.

“Being in recovery means being of service. It’s a big component of any recovery program. And all four of us will be able to call bulls**t in a way that others can’t when we’re up against some well-meaning activist who doesn’t understand addiction.”

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be making progress.”

Marshall counts Measure 110, Oregon’s soon-to-expire drug decriminalization effort, as an example of a well-intended but flawed policy. The initiative put the cart before the horse, he argues, by attempting to funnel people with addiction into treatment before the necessary infrastructure was in place.

He’s more hopeful about House Bill 4002, which reclassifies personal possession of illicit drugs as a misdemeanor. Not because he thinks arrests will bring down Oregon’s addiction rate – the second highest in the nation – but because the bill is accompanied by a $211 million funding package for recovery and mental health services.

Jesse Cornett, a policy and advocacy director at Oregon Recovers who’s running for a seat in District 3, agrees that the state’s investment in addiction treatment marks a pivotal moment.

“The biggest barrier was always the lack of funding. Now that we have the money, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be making progress,” Cornett says.

The new law introduces an expungement process for offenders who complete addiction treatment. However, Cornett is careful to point out that county participation is optional. Even in participating counties, police officers are not required to offer a treatment referral, he says.

“In my opinion, that gives individual officers too much discretion to decide who’s worthy of treatment. I don’t think it’s fair that the outcome between two people arrested on the same Portland street corner could be completely different.”

“We do recover, and we can help solve this crisis.”

Tony Morse is Jesse Cornett’s predecessor at Oregon Recovers. Seven years sober, he’s hoping to represent District 4. At a time when nearly one in five Oregonians struggles with addiction, he says the lived experience of people in recovery is essential in policymaking.

“Nothing about us without us, right? We do recover, and we can help solve this crisis.”

If elected, Morse has a bold proposal: a coordinated office of addiction response. The office, loosely modeled on START – Multnomah County’s adult drug court program, where Morse worked as a judicial law clerk – would unite city, county, and state agencies with behavioral health partners.

“When you look at how we got into this crisis, the problem is our fragmented and siloed approach. This is a chance to bring all key stakeholders together under one roof to run a joint command center and braid funding from a range of revenue streams to deliver lifesaving services,” he says.

Morse says Portland needs a four-pronged approach to addiction, focusing on prevention, intervention, treatment, and long-term support. Elements of his platform range from after-school programs to recovery housing paired with outpatient services.

Tony Morse, a candidate in District 4

“It’s time to start thinking about those who will fix the problem.”

The fourth council candidate in long-term recovery is David Burnell, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor in District 2. The most important thing for lawmakers to understand, he says, is that addiction is a chronic disease that never goes away.

“You can’t just give somebody housing and a ninety-day outpatient treatment and expect them to be cured. This is lifelong, and that’s how we should approach it.”

Burnell, who’s six years sober, says his own recovery inspired him to pursue a career helping others find sobriety. Yet his job can be both physically and emotionally grueling. A father himself, he recalls the harrowing experience of caring for a fourteen-year-old mother with a two-year-old child.

“We spend too much time thinking about the problem and not about the people who will fix it. We should be encouraging people to get the education and certification to enter this field and pay them a living wage to support their families and get the self-care they need,” he says.

“I’m so tired of pretending that the system is working.”

Terrence Hayes, who’s seeking a seat in District 1, knows firsthand what it’s like to be the son of teenagers who suffer from addiction. Hayes says his parents’ struggles galvanized his resolve to stay away from drugs and alcohol.

Now in his early forties, Hayes is the rock of his family. He still regularly drives his mother to the Hooper Detox Center to receive treatment.

“Every time I leave, I leave with hope. But I also know that when that bed is needed for someone else, there will be no support system for my mom. I’m so tired of pretending that the system is working.”

That’s a frustration shared by Marc Koller, a District 2 candidate whose adult son has a history of addiction to opiates and prescription drugs.

Koller recounts spending three and a half years and six thousand dollars in legal fees to get his son on disability for acute anxiety. The result? A $1,200 check and fifteen minutes with a prescribing therapist per month.

“For someone living on $1,200 a month, the only affordable housing option is free housing,” Koller says. 

“I’m the only reason my son is not homeless. But I’m not going to live forever.”

Evidence, not ideology, should guide policy.

Terrence Hayes believes the passage of Measure 110 proved that most Oregonians care about people with addiction and want them to get help. He blames city leaders for causing voters to sour on the initiative by turning a blind eye to open-air drug use downtown.

“I don’t believe we should allow public drug use, nor do I believe the answer is to lock people up. That’s only a contradiction in the minds of people who live on either end of an extreme political spectrum,” Hayes says, adding that the vast majority of those who use drugs don’t do it in the open.

Chad Lykins – a candidate in District 4 – is also the son of a teenage mother with substance addiction. His platform includes medication-assisted treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, and long-term housing vouchers.

“We need to let evidence, not ideology, guide our addiction policy,” Lykins says. 

That sometimes means weathering controversy to explain why something is a good idea, he argues. Lykins supports overdose prevention sites, also known as safe use sites, where individuals can do drugs under supervision and get access to treatment. He says he’s baffled that no one in local government is fighting for safe use sites, despite Oregon losing over a thousand people to overdoses last year.

Lykins is quick to point out that his personal experience doesn’t make him an expert on addiction. If elected, he says he’ll listen to the people who are

“We need voices from people in recovery, people not yet in recovery, and family members of both. There’s this phrase I love,” he says.

“Nothing about us without us.”

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