Should Chicago Implement Safe Spaces for Illegal Drug Use?

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Starting in March 2020, the opioid epidemic – which was already bad – got exponentially worse. Cities like Chicago have been hit especially hard; last year, there were twice as many deaths from opioid overdoses as from homicides. Even worse, that was during a year with a record amount of homicides. Public awareness of the problem is growing, but many people still haven’t realized just how much it’s increased since COVID-19 crossed the borders of the US. In Cook County alone (where Chicago is located), there will probably be more than two thousand overdose deaths from 2021; drug tests associated with suspected overdose cases are still being processed, but the final number shouldn’t be too far off from the estimate. 

Law enforcement, experts, and government officials alike are scrambling to come up with solutions. The situation certainly deserves drastic steps, but various factors have prevented that from happening. Some good has been done by programs that distribute fentanyl test strips, naxolone (which counteracts opioid overdoses), and new needles for free, but clearly that isn’t enough to stem the tide of opioid-overdose fatalities. Chicago, like other cities, spends millions on these efforts every year, and there’s no doubt that they make a difference; the problem is that they don’t make enough of a difference. 

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Why overdose prevention sites are recommended by experts.

The American Medical Association thinks that the city of Chicago needs to go a lot further than test strips and clean needles. According to them, there should be safe injection sites, also called overdose prevention sites, available for anyone who wants to use illegal opioids. The idea is that drug users can be supervised by people who can immediately administer naxolone if they see someone overdosing. They don’t help with drug use; they only intervene when there’s a medical emergency.

The average person’s first impression of the idea might be one of incredulity. Who in their right mind would want to make it easier for people to use drugs – isn’t that completely counterintuitive? This attitude is pretty pervasive, and it likely affects various politicians’ stances on the issue as well. After all, if you want to be re-elected, you don’t want to be seen as condoning drug use. 

Even so, both Canada and Australia have successfully used these sites to prevent opioid-related deaths; it’s far from experimental. It’s even a smart move financially, according to one study, as every dollar devoted to a safe injection site saved $2.33 on health care. 

Between a global pandemic and an increase in fentanyl use, things got much worse very quickly.

It’s no coincidence that opioid overdose cases went up sharply as soon as COVID-19 hit; in fact, there are three reasons why the two are directly related.

First, widespread shutdowns affected support groups of all kinds for drug users. It was like having a rug pulled out from under their feet, as suddenly counselors, community centers, and even their friends were no longer a part of their daily lives. They couldn’t pursue social activities that could potentially help them reduce drug use, and there was often nobody around to administer naxolone if they accidentally overdosed. 

Second, the pandemic closed borders and disrupted not only legitimate commerce, but nearly every part of the illicit drugs supply chain. This created a vacuum, which fentanyl (an opioid painkiller that’s 10 times more potent than heroin) was able to fill. 

Third, a lot of users didn’t even realize that they were taking fentanyl instead of cocaine, heroin, or stolen prescription pills. And since it’s so powerful, they could easily overdose on an amount that would normally be fine for them. 

Between one thing and another, it’s clear to see how circumstances conspired to worsen the opioid epidemic. 

Why communities would benefit from safe injection sites.

Arguably one of the biggest obstacles to these sites is public opinion. It’s only natural to wonder if government figures in Chicago (including the mayor) are moving slowly on the issue because they’re afraid it’ll reflect badly on them. However, the negative perception of safe injection sites is due to the opinion that it’s blatantly enabling drug use. 

If that’s what these sites are doing, does that mean that the city of Chicago is already enabling people by providing clean needles, naxolone, and fentanyl test strips for free across the city? Safe injection sites have all the same things to offer, plus supervisors who are ready and qualified to administer naxolone in the event of an overdose – plus they function as a support system for people who badly need it. 

In fact, New York City is already seeing strong successes in the two safe injection sites there, even after only a couple months of operating. Regular visitors will sometimes drop by, not to use drugs, but to make small talk with the supervisors. Out of 76 overdoses at the sites, every one of them was successfully reversed with naxolone – there hasn’t been a single death so far at these sites. 

Even more than supervised drug use, overdose prevention sites give drug users other options if they feel the motivation to try for something better. There are additional community resources available there, and the simple fact that they’re treated like humans, not like problems, can give them hope that change is possible. 

Resources for those who want to get involved

You don’t have to volunteer five days a week in order to “get involved”; for many, the next step is to simply learn more about what’s going on in their own cities or states. With this in mind, the information and organizations below should be plenty to help you get started, whether you want more statistics, or a way to join your community’s efforts against the opioid epidemic. 

Resources

  • StopOverdose.org
  • 833-2FINDHELP – Illinois Helpline for Opioids and Other Substances
  • Smartrecovery.org
  • Lincoln Recovery (Bloomington, Oak Park, Evanston, Orland Park, Tinley Park)

Nobody has the perfect solution to the problem, but we do know one thing: the more individuals are involved in fixing the problem, the better our chances are of actually succeeding.

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