'More of my friends might be alive': Is a safe haven for drug users the answer to overdose surge?

The rise in drug overdoses in Illinois and the dramatic increase in fentanyl seizures by law enforcement have lawmakers reaching for solutions.

One of the latest, backed by advocates for those battling substance abuse disorders and by some suburban legislators, is the proposed opening of a safe haven in Chicago for illicit-drug users.

Modeled on more than 100 similar facilities in the U.S. as well as Canada and Denmark, the overdose prevention site would have a supply of the overdose reversing drug naloxone on hand, along with a staff trained to help those who overdose. It would offer sterile injection supplies, secure hypodermic needle and syringe disposal, and test strips for users to determine if they unknowingly have a substance laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid blamed for the recent surge in deadly overdoses.

Users would bring their own drugs — only enough for personal use — and receive immunity from civil or criminal prosecution. They also would have access to referrals for substance use disorder and mental health treatment.

Supporters say such a facility would provide a gateway to treatment and reduce fatal overdoses at a time when Cook County and the collar counties are reporting record numbers of opioid-related deaths.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 4,000 people died from overdoses in Illinois in 2021, up more than 12% from 2020.

Alex Mathiesen, a former heroin user who now works as director of programs for the Arlington Heights-based Live4Lali community recovery center, is certain an overdose prevention site would save lives.

“I have witnessed more overdoses in my life than I care to really remember,” said Mathiesen, a McHenry County resident who estimates he's administered naloxone to overdose victims about 40 times.

“It might have not put me in awkward positions of having to push my overdosing friends out of car doors in alleys and then driving away because of fear of law enforcement,” he said. “More of my friends might be alive right now if these things existed.”

State Rep. Daniel Didech, a Democrat from Buffalo Grove, is among the co-sponsors of House Bill 2, introduced in December by fellow Democratic state Rep. La Shawn Ford of Chicago.

“This bill seeks to make sure that people who are using drugs are able to do so in a way that is not causing more harm and allows them to be connected with service providers and support services,” Didech said. “(Advocates say) this is something that works. It's something that's effective.”

Chelsea Laliberte Barnes, founder of Live4Lali, said that even though the first site would be in Chicago — only a municipality with a population greater than 2.5 million would qualify for the first license — it would benefit suburban families.

“When a pilot (program) shows up in Chicago, it's not just serving the people of Chicago. It's serving all of the drug users who go down there to cop drugs and use,” said Barnes, whose brother, Alex, died from an accidental opioid overdose in 2008.

“Chicago is really where the hub of the drug market is,” she said. “We have other localized drug markets in Rockford and in Waukegan, the Metro St. Louis area, but the suburban folks and the people in Northern Illinois tend to centralize their drug distribution from Chicago. So people like my brother would have gone down to pick up and probably use down there, the second they got down there.”

Barnes said similar facilities elsewhere have an overwhelming record of success. New York-based OnPoint NYC, which operates the nation's first authorized supervised consumption centers, says it has helped avert 633 overdoses since opening in November 2021. As of November 2022, OnPoint NYC's two facilities in Manhattan have been used more than 48,000 times by 2,147 people.

Treatment providers say a site like the one proposed in Chicago would offer a holistic solution for those with substance use disorder.

“There are just a lot of resources available,” said Dr. Steven Holtsford, medical director of Lighthouse Recovery in St. Charles. “That's really the key, to link people to resources, and those resources can be health care, mental health care, harm reduction supplies, clean needles and then, of course, linking to treatment.”

Dr. Abid Nazeer, senior medical adviser with Symetria Recovery, which provides outpatient treatment at several suburban locations, said the centers would offer a starting point for those who want to stop using.

“I think the counterargument that you might hear says that there's a place for somebody to go (and engage in) illicit drug use,” he said. “We have an epidemic going on. The illegality of it's not stopping it. Let's at least let it be safe for you.”

  Alex Mathiesen, director of programs for the Live4Lali community recovery center, said he's seen more drug overdoses than he cares to remember. It's one of the reasons he supports the proposed opening of an overdose protection site that would serve as a safe haven for drug users. John Starks/
  A former heroin user who now helps those battling substance abuse disorder as director of programs for Live4Lali, Alex Mathiesen believes the opening of an overdose protection site in Chicago would reduce deaths. John Starks/
  Alex Mathiesen shows free packages supplied to drug users that might be available at an overdose prevention site, including clean syringes, bandages, ointments and clean receptacles for burning drugs to be injected. John Starks/
State Rep. Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove
Chelsea Laliberte Barnes
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