A doctor holds a COVID-19 rapid test as patients wait outside the University of Illinois Chicago’s Community Outreach Intervention Project’s mobile clinic on the West Side on June 23. The walk-in clinic provides harm reduction supplies.
I lost my twin brother Matt to a drug overdose in 2015. Matt Stefani was an avid reader, a musician, a loyal friend, and a contributing member of society. Not an “addict” or another statistic, but a human being who deserved life-saving, evidence-based help that he did not receive because criminalizing drugs costs lives.
Recently, Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin attacked two suburban legislators for supporting a bill to reclassify the penalty for small-scale drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, calling their votes “a slap in the face” to families who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses and urging voters to support their opponents.
What I consider to be a slap in the face is a politician purporting to speak for my family and exploiting our devastation for political gain. It is especially galling to say that the pain of families impacted by a fatal overdose is a reason to maintain the failed status quo on drug policy. Under current practices, there are almost 20,000 drug overdoses in Illinois every year, and in 2021 we lost more than 4,000 human beings to a fatal overdose.
Many of these people are trying to get better, like my brother Matt who battled addiction for two years before his tragic death.
Even after seeing my brother struggle with a substance use disorder, I honestly didn’t have a strong understanding of the issue. I came to learn that nearly everything I had been taught about drugs and drug policy was incorrect. As the programs manager for a nonprofit organization that helps prevent drug overdose, I have seen that showing someone you care that they are alive can have a significant impact on their motivation to seek help.
On the other hand, punitive drug possession laws only deepen social stigma and further isolate people, preventing them from receiving evidence-based care that could save their lives. Criminalizing people for possessing drugs has caused hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. The war on drugs disproportionately impacts people of color and fuels mass incarceration, destroying families and tearing apart communities.
This takes a huge financial toll on the state, and all we’re getting out of it is more dead people and devastated families.
Drug abuse is a health issue, and studies show that the vast majority of people who become addicted are dealing with mental health issues and have likely experienced trauma early in life. This is a failure of our mental health infrastructure, not an individual moral failing.
The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Illinois must chart a new course. Harm reduction practices like providing access to the overdose reversal medicine naloxone, fentanyl test strips, safe using supplies, and overdose prevention sites, can triple the odds that an individual will stop using drugs, and increase the odds an individual will seek drug treatment five-fold.
Although programs like this may seem radical, they have been used in several other countries and even some states with very promising results. What is often misunderstood is that people actively using drugs often isolate themselves from the people who love them. When someone accesses harm reduction services, they are given a point of contact that can connect them to other health, drug treatment, and housing services they may need.
Illinois needs leadership to end the disastrous war on drugs and invest in solutions to end the deadly overdose epidemic. The pain of grieving families should not be used as a political weapon.
Those dealing with substance abuse are human beings — and they all have a story.
Steve Stefani is programs director for the nonprofit Hope for Healing.
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