The Fight to Open a Safe Consumption Site in Chicago

    Illinois harm reduction advocates are urging state lawmakers to pass a bill authorizing safe consumption sites (also known as overdose prevention sites, or OPS), as time runs out in the legislative session. The sites would be a lifesaving resource in a state where overdose is the leading accidental cause of death, but not enough politicians seem to agree.

    If the bill doesn’t make it, harm reductionists will turn directly to the city of Chicago, where they have public and political support, in seeking to open the first sanctioned OPS in the Midwest.

    House Bill 2 was introduced by Representative La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), and currently has 18 sponsors, all Democrats. It passed out of the Health and Human Services Committee on May 4. To become law, it would need to pass a full House floor vote before moving to the Senate and ultimately the governor’s desk. With the legislative session ending on May 19, that now looks unlikely.

    “We have listened to the community and written a bill that matches what they’re asking for.”

    Chelsea Laliberté Barnes, co-founder and co-chair of the Illinois Harm Reduction & Recovery Coalition, wrote the legislation herself. “The language of the bill was thoroughly vetted by our [over 170] coalition members before we passed it to our sponsor,” she told Filter. “This is coming directly from our community, from individuals using drugs and serving them.”

    The bill defines “overdose prevention sites” as “hygienic locations where individuals may safely consume pre-obtained substances.” Staff would monitor participants for signs of overdose, ready to intervene with the opioid-overdose antidote naloxone and other measures if needed. They would provide people with sterile syringes and other drug-use equipment, together with wound-care supplies and naloxone to take home.

    The sites would additionally refer participants to outside services on request, like substance use disorder and mental health treatment, medications such as buprenorphine or methadone, recovery support, health care and job training.

    All participants would be given a unique alphanumeric code to keeps their name and personal information anonymous. Priority in establishing the sites would be given to areas with the highest overdose rates. And participants, staff and site property owners would be protected from arrest and criminal charges.

    The bill makes clear that this would be a pilot, but it doesn’t contain a “sunset” clause that would close sites down in the future.

    Barnes said the initial goal is to set up an OPS in Chicago, which could well be located at an existing harm reduction center. She referenced a 2020 survey that showed 86 percent of respondents in Chicago’s West Side “believed an OPS would be beneficial” to their communities.

    “So we have listened to the community and written a bill that matches what they’re asking for,” Barnes said. She also noted that even if the bill passes the legislature, the city government would have to take additional steps to approve and open a site.

    “If you are a legislator and you say that you care about saving lives, this is one of those very rare bills that actually will do that the day one is launched,” she said. “And we know that from the data coming from New York City, Vancouver, Toronto, Sweden and everywhere else in the world.”

    “We’ve been meeting with legislators; it is our disappointment that we don’t have the votes. This is after years of education.”

    In Illinois, over 3,900 people are estimated to have died of overdose in 2021 according to the CDC. About three in four deaths involved fentanyl, and such fentanyl-related deaths have been rising since 2015. Deaths involving cocaine, and to a lesser extent methamphetamine, are also slowly trending up each year.

    Evidence unequivocally shows that OPS protect people from fatal overdose. But in Illinois, as elsewhere, stubborn or fearful politicians are a major obstacle. Barnes is not optimistic about getting the bill through this time around.

    “Do we think it will pass? We don’t see a pathway. We’ve been on the ground meeting with legislators; it is our disappointment that we don’t have the votes. This is after years of education among legislators.”

    OPS have at least one supporter in the Senate, in Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), but that won’t be enough. And Governor JB Pritzker (D) has not gone on record in support of OPS, even though his administration has taken some steps to expand harm reduction.

    If the legislative session ends with no action, Barnes said harm reduction advocates will continue the fight for OPS—whether that’s continuing to lobby state lawmakers, or bypassing them by working directly with the city of Chicago.

    “Mayor Johnson met with advocates on the ground, and he publicly went on the record supporting overdose prevention sites.”

    The City Council has already passed a resolution supporting OPS, and harm reductionists can now count on the support of a powerful ally: newly elected Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson (D).

    “After a report came out that he wasn’t supportive of OPS, he walked back that statement after he received similar education [to the state lawmakers],” Barnes said. “He met with advocates on the ground with Chicago Recovery Alliance and the West Side Heroin and Opioid Taskforce, and he publicly went on the record supporting overdose prevention sites, which is really encouraging. We are thrilled to hopefully work with his transition team to get this on the docket for his legislative platform.”

    According to the Drug Policy Alliance, nearly 200 OPS are legally authorized to operate in 14 countries worldwide. No overdose death has been recorded at any of them, and many lives have been saved. The first two sanctioned sites in the United States, opened in New York City in November 2021 and run by OnPoint NYC, exemplify this. In the first year, OnPoint served 2,100 people and successfully intervened in 633 overdoses.


    Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 3.0

    The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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