Editor’s note: This story includes descriptions of substance use disorders.
Inside of a warehouse on Taylor Street on the northern border of Lawndale and East Garfield Park, the Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA) fights a war against overdose with sterile syringes and kindness as ammunition. CRA has served Chicagoland citizens struggling with substance use disorders utilizing harm reduction tactics since 1992.
Harm reduction, a relatively new approach to assisting those with substance use disorders, aims to reduce negative consequences of human behavior, mainly substance use and sexual activity, without requiring that a client abstains. Harm reduction emphasizes that those who are in active drug use can still take positive steps to protect themselves and their community.
“Most [of the] other recovery systems usually offer just the blue plate special [of] abstinence,” Peter Moinichen, a longtime volunteer at CRA, said. “Harm reduction supports abstinence, but it supports other pathways and tends to be more respectful [to] meet the person where they are [in a] non-judgmental [fashion].”
In the war against stigma and overdose, CRA takes supplies to the streets. The alliance owns several silver vans stocked with naloxone, syringes, informational literature, safer drug paraphernalia kits and caring volunteers. Drug paraphernalia kits for smoking or snorting substances include a glass straw that is easy to clean, a small ball made of a copper scouring pad that serves as a filter and a spark plug cover for those smoking out of the straw to avoid burns. The kits for injectables include sanitary syringes, alcohol wipes and wads of cellulose acting as a filter when placed inside the syringe.
“Drug use is a part of life. Drug use, people have always wanted to perceive things different,” Erica Ernst, president of CRA, said. “and some people’s [drug] use has caused problems in their lives.”
In May 2021, President Biden recognized harm reduction as a means to prevent overdose in the American Rescue Act. The act funnels $30 million into harm-reduction-based services and programs, but organizers and volunteers at CRA say that more needs to change.
“[Drug use should be decriminalized] because we stigmatize people who use substances, period,” Ernst said. “We’re real quick to be like, ‘Oh, well, marijuana is soft, and crack is hard.’ They’re all mind-changing, mind-altering substances, and they should all be acknowledged as part of the human experience.”
In 2020, Oregon voted to decriminalize drug possession and provide treatment for people with substance use disorders instead of arresting them. In 2022, the Associated Press reported that of the 16,000 people who utilized substance use programs in the first year, only 0.85% of them entered treatment.
“The only policy changes that are really going to matter in this country is to get rid of the DEA because they will stand in the way of any rescheduling [categorize substances],” Moinichen said. “For them to say that certain drugs have absolutely no benefit medically is ridiculous. All drugs are medicinal. All drugs are tools and that’s all they are. It’s our relationship with them that needs to be examined.”
One of the volunteers at CRA, who has asked to be kept anonymous for safety reasons, has been in recovery from substance use for several years. When they were actively using drugs, they sought out the services at CRA.
“It’s really hard for a lot of people to just get out and get clean syringes [because of] the financial pressures you’re in at the time,” the volunteer said. “For addicts in general, it’s intimidating to get clean supplies [and] to seek out any services. It’s like I go to this van, are they going to profile me? Am I going to [be] arrested around the corner? [But] this organization was very welcoming.”
Ernst, the president of CRA, shared a story of one of her long-term clients at the organization. The client is “whip smart” and “a laugh” that used CRA as a positive touchstone. She has repeatedly gotten pregnant but is not in a place to give birth to keep or put the child up for adoption. Ernst linked the client with another organization for abortion care.
“It’s just [a] stigma,” Ernst said. “Think about it, would you want to be stigmatized for something you have done or you currently do? And seen as lesser than?”
If you or someone you know is experiencing substance misuse, you can call the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Action Helpline at 1(800) 662-4357. You can also visit Drug-Free America’s website to learn more about drugs, treatment and online screenings.
If you are a DePaul student experiencing substance misuse, the University’s Office of Health Promotion and Wellness has a variety of educational programs and support groups.
Header by Rafa Villamar