Lawmakers move bills aimed at addressing opioid crisis

Illinois lawmakers are considering several measures aimed at addressing the opioid overdose crisis and putting a greater emphasis on harm reduction, though some of the more controversial proposals with that approach have stalled.

With one week left in the legislature’s scheduled spring session, at least three bills addressing the crisis have passed through one chamber of the General Assembly.

One measure has the potential to broaden access to fentanyl test strips, expanding on legislation from last year that allowed the drug testing supplies to be sold over-the-counter and distributed by health departments.

If enacted, the new legislation would provide fentanyl test strips to hospitals, jails, universities and other organizations through the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Drug Overdose Prevention Program. It would expand access to more effectively reach people, said House Republican leader Tony McCombie of Savanna, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The bipartisan bill, a product of work by an intern in the office of Democratic sponsor Sen. Laura Ellman, passed without any no votes in the Senate and in a House committee, and now awaits consideration by the full House.

A separate bill, already passed in the House with some opposition from Republicans, would provide people with a history of drug related-charges or substance use disorder the overdose reversal drug naloxone upon release from jail or prison.

Colette Payne, a director at the Women’s Justice Institute working with women who have been impacted by the criminal legal system, said the legislation would save lives.

“Everybody’s not ready to stop using,” Payne, who was formerly incarcerated and previously used heroin, said. “And if you can provide that naloxone to somebody on their way out the door, doesn’t mean you’re promoting the usage. It means you’re preventing a death.”

A third bill would also expand on previous legislation to develop drug education for kids, specifically adding requirements for fentanyl education starting in sixth grade. A bill passed by the Senate that was amended to allow a school social worker or law enforcement officer to teach the material is now in the House.

The legislation comes as provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed drug overdose deaths nationwide decreased slightly, while still remaining high compared to pre-pandemic numbers. It was the first annual decrease in overdose deaths since 2018, according to the CDC.

Despite the 3% nationwide decrease last year, more tthan 100,000 people across the country died of an overdose in 2023, according to new CDC data. Overdoses in Illinois proportionately decreased by even more than the nationwide average, according to the provisional data, but thousands are still dying every year.

“Too many of our family members, our friends, our neighbors, our loved ones are dying and our current policies are really not cutting it,” ACLU Illinois criminal justice policy director Ben Ruddell, who has supported several of the reforms, said.

Illinois Harm Reduction and Recovery Coalition co-Chair Chelsea Laliberte Barnes said lawmakers have been paying attention to the issue throughout her 15 years of work in Springfield. But this year, legislation has shifted noticeably toward overdose prevention over punishment, abstinence or traditional treatment, she said.

Even so, some of the harm reduction movement’s most ambitious proposals have not passed. A bill to open a pilot overdose prevention site in Chicago — where people could use drugs in a supervised environment — has not received a vote in either chamber.

The bill is opposed by some who have supported more moderate harm reduction efforts and see it as a bridge too far. But it’s a key initiative of many groups supporting harm reduction including the Coalition, Illinois ACLU and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

A so-called safe consumption site is different from initiatives such as providing access to fentanyl test strips, because test strips aren’t necessarily tied to an illegal activity, Illinois Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Jim Kaitschuk said — “whereas sitting in a safe consumption site where people are monitoring you shooting up, that’s a much different conversation,” he added.

Still, “it’s a balancing act” as there are still many people dying of overdoses, he said.

McCombie, who has supported legislation for fentanyl test strips and fentanyl education, said any bill for an overdose prevention site is “completely off the table for me.” She said she supports “common sense” penalty enhancements, which harm reduction groups and many Democrats have opposed.

Laliberte Barnes, a leader in advocating for several pieces of harm reduction legislation including the drug consumption site proposal, acknowledged the legislation is especially tough in an election year but said “politics cannot outweigh saving lives.” She said she’s still pushing for bipartisan passage of the legislation, even if it takes her beyond the scheduled end of the regular session on May 24.

“Their first thing is public safety,” Payne said of lawmakers she’s spoken with. “But public safety looks different for everyone, especially in communities that are poverty-stricken.”