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As opioid overdose deaths grow in Chicago, so does push for harm reduction and ‘safe consumption'

By Caroline Kubzansky and Alice Yin with the Chicago Tribune

Published: Aug 28, 2023 at 7:02 pm

Elected officials and advocates called for empathy Monday toward people with substance abuse disorders and increased options for treating and preventing opioid overdoses.

In his address to the crowd of volunteers, supporters and onlookers in Chicago’s Federal Plaza ahead of International Overdose Awareness Day on Thursday, Mayor Brandon Johnson repeated his campaign promise on so- called Treatment Not Trauma and called for a “public health approach” to

reduce opioid deaths in Chicago.

“We must not criminalize and further harm our brothers and sisters in need,” Johnson said before dozens of volunteers and bystanders. “Substance use and abuse ... creates a ripple effect of devastation in our families and neighborhoods.”

“We must extend care,” he added, “not judgment.”

Volunteers circulated in T-shirts that said “Keep calm and spray it in their nose” in reference to naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of a drug overdose. Others chatted with passersby at a table laden with photographs and bearing a sign that read “Ask me about my dead kid.”

At a separate table run by Felicia Miceli, 64, of Bartlett, and Roger Stefani, 67, of Willowbrook, passersby could help contribute to an art installation about losing loved ones to drug overdoses.

Miceli and Stefani met through their advocacy work after they each lost sons to overdoses, they said. Stefani’s son Matthew died in 2015 at 22. Miceli’s son Louie died in 2012 at 24. Both described their children as having had big personalities.

“We think they’re friends in heaven,” Miceli said.

They said they hoped to bring their art installation to community centers around the state to increase awareness about the risks of opioids and reduce people’s negative assumptions about those with substance use disorders.

Reducing the stigma and assumptions around substance abuse was a primary goal for Mary Roberson, 69, who said she wanted to “put a face and voice to recovery.”

Roberson has been in recovery for 31 years from opioid abuse, she said. She wants to dispel a common assumption that people with substance abuse disorders are using drugs because of a character failing rather than because they are suffering from a disease.

“They think it’s a moral issue and it’s not,” Roberson said.

The Illinois Harm Reduction Coalition works to provide safe supplies for people who use drugs and support people in recovery from drug addiction, according to the organization’s website.

One of its goals is to establish safe injection sites, also known as overdose prevention or supervised consumption sites.

The question of whether to establish these sites in Chicago cropped up during the mayoral race this year.

In a WBEZ/Sun-Times candidates questionnaire before Johnson advanced to the runoff and became the eventual winner, he was listed as a “No” for a question on whether he supports “safe consumption sites,” defined as a space that allows use of “pre-obtained illegal drugs under the supervision of trained health workers.”

Johnson’s original answer read: “My brother Leon was my hero. A husband and father, he struggled with mental illness and died addicted and unhoused. He needed more than a safe consumption site. He needed mental health care.

And a home.

Given Chicago’s history, these sites would most likely be on the South and West sides, further burdening already struggling neighborhoods. There are other ways to address the drug epidemic and aid those in need, while also protecting our communities.”

But after some criticism from progressives on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, the candidate hedged his reply before reversing course.

“It’s not either/or,” Johnson’s account replied underneath a post that offered to buy him a coffee and change his mind on safe consumption sites. “It’s ‘we need more.’ I’ve lost family to mental illness, addiction and homelessness. I want to go beyond safe consumption sites to address mental health care and unhoused. I also believe sites should be accessible to those in need throughout our city.”

Another account later that day pushed him to “please explain,” and Johnson came out in definitive support of safe injection sites.

“I support safe consumption sites *and* need for resources, especially in underserved Black/Brown communities,” Johnson’s account posted. “I have two brothers who have struggled with addiction — one dead, one we are still caring for — so this is personal. I should have offered more clarity. Thank you.”

Legislation to establish safe injection sites throughout Illinois, HB0002, was submitted in the Illinois House of Representatives but has so far languished.


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