PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) – Illinois lawmakers and community organizations are pushing for more help in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
State leaders said it’s an uphill battle but the status quo isn’t working. They’re advocating for more resources such as de-criminalization legislation of drugs and more harm reduction support.
Christopher Short, 38, is an example of how harm reduction can help those struggling.
“I could’ve just lost my life in an abandoned house, you know, is that where I want to be when I take my last breath? Is this what I want to see,” Short said. “Or in the bathroom or on the side of a pawn shop?”
These are haunting thoughts and visuals that plagued Short during the height of his addiction. He said since about he age of 15, he’s battled substance use disorder and even survived multiple heroin overdoses.
“I always felt like I was running and hiding in my addiction from city to city, abandoned houses valleys,” Short said. “If you have time to really contemplate life and feel the weight of everything, it bothers you. It makes you feel like you have no worth.”
He said he moved to Peoria about two years ago and was introduced to JOLT Harm Reduction, where those with the organization saved him from an overdose.
“That led me to want to change and do more, it was just the change in the atmosphere. It was not being stigmatized for being addicted.”
He said this encounter eventually led him to a path of sobriety.
“I think that’s what changed me, it wasn’t the pointing the fingers, it was the making me feel worth,” Short said. “They influenced me to want better things in my life. The unconditional love made me see myself in a different lens.”
Short now has a job and said he’s 8 months sober. He said he often tells his story to others hoping it will help.
This is a proud sight for Chris Schaffner, Program Director for JOLT Harm Reduction.
Schaffner is an advocate for more harm reduction resources and legislation like House Bill 3447. The legislation helps to defelonize possession for personal use drugs by making it a misdemeanor to carry certain grams of drugs, like Fentanyl, instead of it carrying a felony charge.
“Just because we have strong threatening punishing laws, that doesn’t decrease people’s substance use,” Schaffner said. “Particularly if they’re dependent or addicted to a very powerful synthetic opioid like Fentanyl.”
He said this would have the opposite effect and would push people to use drugs in a much more secretive manner.
“Most of these folks are addicted to a super powerful synthetic opioid and just quitting cold turkey is a thing of the past, that’s not option,” Schaffner said. “Not the way that the drug changes your brain, changes the neurowiring, chemistry of your brain. It makes it nearly impossible to quit without long-term medical support.”
He said criminalization would make people less likely to acknowledge they are struggling with Fentanyl use and dependency because of fear of prosecution.
“That’s what we’re really trying to pushback on are these harmful draconian, just kind of a doubling down on the old war on drugs stuff that has not helped at all,” Schaffner said.
Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood said, to date, there have been 43 deadly overdoses in Peoria County this year. Schaffner said that number is 19 for Tazewell County.
Schaffner is also a member of the Illinois Harm Reduction and Recovery Coalition which is working with state representatives to push for more resources such as treatment, Narcan distribution, and safe consumption centers.
Schaffner said these centers have shown success in other parts of the country and the world. He said they want to pilot it in Chicago before expanding.
He said those who use drugs can do so in the center and be medically observed for adverse reactions by trained medical staff.
Schaffner said people may interpret this as encouraging drug use, but he said the alternative of using in safe facilities would be people using drugs on the streets or in filthy gas station bathrooms, such as in the photo he shared below.
“We want to see people restored to health, not taken out of the community of life,” Schaffner said. “We really believe that isolation only makes a situation worse, that punishment only makes a situation worse and we believe that compassionate public health interventions is the best way to address this ongoing, growing overdose crisis.”