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JOLT Director: Proposed Bill To Legalize Injection Facilities Could Save Lives

Matt Rourke
AP, File
This July 31, 2017, file photo shows discarded syringes in an open-air heroin market that has thrived for decades, slated for cleanup along train tracks a few miles outside Philadelphia.

The program director of JOLT Harm Reduction in Peoria thinks the time has come to find creative solutions to the nation’s drug problem.

Chris Schaffner said a bill proposed in the Illinois House that aims to combat overdoses by legalizing supervised injection sites is a step in the right direction.  

“We're at a place now where we need a different approach to addressing the drug epidemic and drug use in our country,” said Schaffner. “We have to move away from a criminal justice based intervention to a public health intervention. And that's what these prevention sites are: they reduce the overdoses because people are being monitored.”

The legislation sponsored by State Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, would legalize the overdose prevention sites, also frequently called safe consumption rooms. Schaffner said that JOLT supports any activity or program that reduces loss of life.

He added that while such sites do not exist in the U.S. because the substances are illegal, they have been effective in other countries.

“None of these sites would be providing substances for folks. All these sites will be providing is medical supervision of someone who's using drugs that they pre-purchased,” he said. “The reason this is so effective is that if they were to come in, they would be able to test their drug product to see what adulterants are in it. So that's another way of reducing the risk of overdose or other complications and health concerns, knowing what you're actually consuming.”

Schaffner said JOLT often finds contaminants through reagent testing done on samples of products available on the streets, and those contaminants increase the probability of overdoses or adverse reactions. He said the safe consumption sites minimize the transmission of infections such as hepatitis C and HIV, and prevent waste from being discarded unsafely.

“They can also dispose of those supplies in a proper and sanitized way,” he said. “A site like that will be able to have those supplies incinerated so that they wouldn't be out in the public or in a park or in the trash. So that's a public health strategy to protect the community as well.”

While critics suggest safe injection sites would normalize and condone intravenous drug use, Schaffner said addicts who use safe consumption rooms also get access to harm reduction services and are generally more willing to seek drug treatment voluntarily.

“This is what's so bizarre about this. It’s that people are actually more likely to enter treatment of their own volition rather than through traditional ways people enter through treatment, which is through forced or coerced criminal justice interventions, or because of family pressure and coercion,” he said.

“So a lot of times we see high rates of relapse among individuals who don't have any real sense of agency or self-determination in their substance use. When they're forced or coerced into treatment, you end up a lot of times with shallow compliance and then higher rates of recidivism, which also increases the risk of overdose.

“People who come through harm reduction programs, or even a safe consumption site where they have access to these harm reduction services, they actually begin to be empowered to make healthier choices for themselves – even in the midst of these high-risk behaviors. When they do that, they begin to value themselves and their health more, and that snowballs into other positive change that's driven intrinsically rather than externally pressured.”

Schaffner said even if the legislation does not pass, it at least opens a conversation about needing a new approach to the drug epidemic.

“I'm hopeful the conversation continues. I think we're learning how to navigate this together, moving into a place where people realize that we can't just continue throwing the same old, tired tactics at this problem,” said Schaffner.

“I don't know how hopeful I am that it will pass. I'm just excited that we're actually having conversations with creative ideas, because the old ways of doing things are just tired and not effective. Think about the trillions of dollars we've invested in the ‘War on Drugs’ and yet we find ourselves still in the largest drug epidemic we've ever experienced when it comes to opioid-related overdose fatalities.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.