CHICAGO – Tuesday afternoon, State Senator Patricia Van Pelt (D-Chicago) held a hearing in light of rising opioid overdose deaths in Cook County over the past year.

 “I think it’s necessary to reanalyze substance addiction in a way that is not criminalizing the addict,” Van Pelt said. “Substance abuse is a disorder, and people need treatment, not punishment. The drug companies, dealers, doctors and pharmacists should be held accountable for the role they play in these overdoses.”

 Gloria Banks, member of Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere, testified that users are victims, and dealers are the ones who should be criminalized. Banks’ brother Jay died last December of an overdose.  Banks said she doesn’t believe it to be an accident, but rather a homicide.

 “Drug users are sick. This is their medicine,” Banks said. “They take the drugs not with the intention to die, [but] with the intention to get high. The victims should not be held responsible, the drug dealers should be held responsible.”

Dr. Leslie Wise, an epidemiologist from the Illinois Department of Public Health testified that there were 2,872 reported opioid-related deaths in 2020, which was a 30% increase from 2019. The rates were highest for Black and Latino men.

Further, she stated that a majority of drug overdoses in the last two years were linked to opioids or polysubstance use. Polysubstance use, such as mixes of fentanyl and cocaine, is an area that needs further surveillance and is more difficult to reverse with naloxone. Opioid prevention and reporting can be tracked on dph.illinois.gov/opioids. IDPH is expected to release a report in April.

Rebekah Joab, Legal Action Center staff attorney stressed the importance of accessible and consistent treatment, saying that the stigma of “trading one addiction for another” is incorrect and leads to tremendous harm. If someone is forced to stop their treatment, their symptoms will come rushing back and increase risk of overdose and death.

Van Pelt is committed to ending these stigmas and helping to end criminalization to substance abuse treatment. There are all provisions in the Black Caucus’ Healthcare Pillar -- known as House Bill 158 -- which passed the General Assembly last week.