CHICAGO - A proposal in Springfield would allow state-licensed drug injection sites to open across Illinois in an effort to reduce fatal overdoses amid a nationwide opioid crisis that has hit Cook County particularly hard.
State Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Democrat from the Austin neighborhood, introduced the measure last year, before the country’s first injection sites opened in New York City. At a news conference in Springfield Thursday, Ford insisted that setting up safe spaces and bolstering other overdose prevention strategies would "save taxpayer dollars while saving lives."
"The war on drugs, where we told people to just say no, failed us," he told reporters. "We know that people are going to use, and we have to support them."
Ford said he was swayed by a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, where North America’s first legal consumption space opened in 2003. Many of the current sites across the globe are clustered in Canada, Europe and Australia, though there have been some in the United States.
Fatal drug overdoses have risen steadily across the nation for more than two decades, with powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl now contributing to most of the deaths. An analysis by WBEZ found there were at least 1,920 deadly drug overdoses in Cook County last year, a 4% increase from the previous year.
The proposal to allow people to use drugs at state-approved sites is part of a larger push to treat the opioid crisis as a public health problem, rather than a criminal justice issue. Chelsea Laliberte Barnes, co-founder of the Illinois Harm Reduction and Recovery Coalition, said Illinoisans "need treatment, not punishment for being a human being."
Barnes is pushing for increased access to fentanyl testing strips and medications that reverse overdoses and help drug users recover. But she also wants help with job training and housing, more outreach programs and injection spaces that she said typically have "a ton of resources right in-house."
"In New York City, where they’re operating three sites, they’re seeing unbelievable changes in their own community, including the reduction of crime, the reduction of open air markets, linking people to care, better relationships with police," Barnes said. "There are so many benefits to these public health strategies that end up having an impact on how out criminal legal system ends up working and responding."
Under Ford’s bill, the Illinois Department of Human Services would create a "Harm Reduction Services license" that would be issued for safe sites.
Among other things, applicants would need to show they have a "hygienic space," adequate staffing and safe injection supplies. The sites would need to provide first aid and monitor for possible overdoses.
Barnes and Ford both said their close relationships with loved ones who battled addictions helped shape their approach to the problem. Barnes’ brother died from an overdose, while Ford’s mother was a longtime drug user.
"Because of her," Ford said of his mother, "I know better about how to help save lives and why we have to support people with substance use disorder and not throw them away."
Representatives for Gov. J.B. Pritzker didn’t respond to inquiries about Ford’s proposal. But Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has been a supporter of creating regulated spaces for drug use.
In an interview Thursday, Foxx said she and Ford — an old family friend — traveled to Canada three years ago and saw two people get resuscitated after overdosing at an injection site.
"Three years later, when we are now looking at the second year in a row where we have as a county and as a nation an unprecedented number of people dying of opioid overdoses, the reality is we have to do something different," she said.
Like Ford and Barnes, Foxx said she has seen the toll of addiction. Last year, Foxx’s cousin died from a fentanyl overdose after another person left her alone without immediately calling for help. Foxx said she believes the outcome could’ve been different had there been a safe place for her cousin to use drugs.
Foxx insisted the sites would also free up police officers and cut down on the type of dead-end drug arrests the Sun-Times and the Better Government Association highlighted last year, leaving more resources to go after "people who are profiting off the death of folks."
"Even when [Ford] and I went to safe injection sites three years ago, we both were like, this feels radical," she said. "But today, it feels deeply personal and I recognize — not just from a strictly policy standpoint, but from a humanities standpoint — that we have to do better."