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Any Positive Change

He believed that every life was worth saving, and in treating people who use drugs with dignity.”

Dan Bigg

The death of Dan Bigg in August 2018 prompted descriptive headlines — “the Godfather of Harm Reduction,” “Harm Reduction Pioneer,” “Revolutionary” — from media across the country and the world. And though the headlines sound exaggerated, they are startling true. Dan, co-founder of Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA), because of his passion to help others, and reduce the stigma and shame surrounding addiction and overdoses, helped save thousands of lives. The Chicago School is honored to name him a 2019 Chicago Social Impact Leader.

“Most opiate-addicted people don’t want to be,” Dan said in a 2003 Chicago Tribune interview. “They wish it was different. But it isn’t. The best we can do is help them take care of themselves and minimize the harm to themselves and others until they are ready to stop on their own.”

Harm reduction, the principle of reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use, was Dan’s mantra. Early in his career when he was working as a substance abuse treatment worker, he noticed the high rate of HIV infection among people who shared syringes to inject drugs, and co-founded the Chicago Recovery Alliance to alleviate the problem. It was illegal to have a syringe without a prescription at that time in Illinois, but CRA found a loophole by partnering with public health researchers.

Dan had the same “we can’t afford to wait” attitude when it came to getting naxolone into the hands of those who most need it – people who use drugs (PWUD). Effective at immediately reversing opioid overdoses, naxolone had been restricted to the use of emergency rooms personnel and paramedics. As so many of the headlines stated, Dan was a pioneer, and he is known as the force behind “take home” naxolone programs. When the idea to make naxolone more broadly available was rejected, Dan pushed on, even taking duffel bags full of the antidote to harm reduction conferences to encourage people to start naxolone programs in their own communities. By 2014, there were more than 640 known naxolone distribution sites across the country, and many states allow the purchase of naxolone without a prescription.

Dan wanted to do everything he could to reduce the harm to PWUD, because as he stated in a “Chicago Magazine” interview, “Any positive change as a person defines it for him or herself is our definition of recovery.”

He believed that every life was worth saving, and in treating PWUD with dignity. For him that meant meeting them where they were in their process, and not just distributing naloxone, but needles as well, teaching users how to inject more safely, and testing for diseases. Chicago Recovery Alliance staffers do all of this and more out of its sites on the West Side and South Side of Chicago, and the CRA van, which travels throughout the city conducting outreach.

Dan will be sorely missed, but thanks to his passion, leadership, mentorship and training, all over the world, people who use drugs will be treated with dignity and humanity, and many more thousands of lives will be saved.

Join us at the Chicago Social Impact Awards luncheon on March 7.