SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — A new bill in the capitol would legalize safe spaces to use drugs.
The bill would allow the Department of Human Services to license what the bill calls “Overdose Prevention Sites.” People could go to these locations and use illegal drugs under direct supervision, with no fear of criminal prosecution.
Right now, they are far from common in the United States. Rhode Island is the only state to legalize them, but New York City and several other cities have them. A pair of lawmakers are saying those spaces are the next logical step as the state tries to curb overdose deaths.
Opioid overdoses continue to be a leading cause of accidental deaths in the state for those between the ages of 18 and 49. In 2021, 3,013 people died from overdoses. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), said supervised injection sites are a logical step to help curb those numbers.
“Why would we turn our backs on people struggling with a substance use disorder saying, ‘no, we don’t want to allow space for you,'” Ford said. “‘We would rather see you die on the streets.'”
Taylorville police chief Dwayne Wheeler takes his own unique approach to helping people who are suffering from addiction. The Taylorville Safe Passage program has helped hundreds of people get clean before they get in trouble with the law. The increased supervision is a sensible idea for Wheeler, but he is skeptical of the ramifications that come with giving people a safe space to use.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Wheeler said. “But let’s treat the people.”
Ford said in an ideal situation, there would be treatment options available at these facilities.
“I think we should have the debate to make sure that when we have overdose prevention sites, that they’re not places where people just go use drugs,” Ford said. “It’s the place where people go and get the help that they need while struggling with a substance use disorder.”
But the bill does not require those services. At a minimum, the bill would require these facilities to have a clean space to use, have naloxone to help people survive an overdose, staff that can help people who are in the middle of an overdose and equipment like fentanyl testing strips.
It also would give legal immunity to people who use in those facilities.
Wheeler’s Safe Passage program gives people the opportunity to come into the police department and say they need help. It’s gained state wide acclaim, and even earned his department a $250,000 grant from the state to expand.
The program prioritizes getting people to treatment centers. It relies on people to take that first step and admit they need help, and once they take that step, the department — and it’s long list of volunteers — will drive that person to whatever rehab center they can find a spot in, no matter where it is in the state.
He said if the state is going to allow supervised injection sites, they need to carefully design the program, and make sure it leaves no questions unanswered on how it would work.
There is data that shows supervised injection sites have positive impacts, but they also come with societal ramifications, including arguments over where the sites will be located.
“Illinois should answer the call, knowing that this is the best harm reduction tool that we have in our toolbox,” Ford said. “When you look at overdose prevention sites, and you look at other harm reduction tools, this is the number one harm reduction tool that has proven to save lives across the world.”
This is not the first time the proposal has made its way around the Capitol, but it hasn’t found any traction in past years. So far, the bill has not been voted on in any committees.