For several years, a little-understood industry has taken root on Chicago’s West and South sides, advertising drug addiction recovery through self-help and group counseling.
Many of these programs began establishing ties with local municipal authorities and local police in Puerto Rico, who would direct, and in some cases send, Puerto Rican addicts to Chicago to join these programs. But WBEZ has learned that some of them may have offered more than just group counseling to help people, particularly when it came to easing newcomers through the difficulties of drug detoxification.
Suboxone, the ‘miracle’ pill
“We would help alleviate it with a little pill that they called ‘La Milagrosa,’” said Luis “Wisin” Negron, a former coordinator at a program called El Grito Desesperado. “They called it ‘Milagrosa’ in Puerto Rico. Here they call it Suboxone.”
Suboxone is a brand name of buprenorphine, a controlled substance that’s sometimes used to help people who are detoxing or being treated for opiate addiction. The drug blocks other opiates from working in the body and mitigates the painful effects of withdrawal, which could include diarrhea and cold sweats.
Negron explained, in Spanish, that newcomers to his program often were combative because they were dealing with the discomfort of withdrawal. He said addicts in the program would buy Suboxone on the street, and then he or the former owner of the program would administer the drug to those who needed it, often in pill form. Negron left the program about three years ago.
“I would cut it and give them half. The next day I would give them less,” he explained. “You know, little by little and by five or six days they weren’t like that (anymore), and would take a chair to join the group.”
Without a license, dispensing Suboxone is illegal
“That’s bordering on a crime, actually,” said Dr. Abdel Fahmy, an addiction physician and Chief Medical Officer at Soft Landing Interventions.
“Both Suboxone and methadone are controlled substances, which are highly regulated medications,” explained Fahmy. “So there are very strict rules and regulations regarding the prescribing and dispensing of these controlled substances because they inherently carry a lot of risk.”
For instance, Fahmy said that if a patient is on sleep medication or other sedatives, Suboxone could be lethal. Currently, doctors may prescribe Suboxone only if they have completed additional training and obtained special approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
People who have been through other unlicensed programs similar to Negron’s told WBEZ that they, too, had received controlled substances as part of their treatment. Two men said they had been given methadone at a group now known as Segunda Vida when they were there about a decade ago. WBEZ called someone who worked with Segunda Vida to substantiate these claims, and did not hear back.
A third man told WBEZ that three years ago, he was given Suboxone within his first three days at a group called Independencia. But this claim was strongly refuted by a person who works with that group.
“At no time do we provide substances,” said Carlos Gonzalez, who said he has been affiliated with Independencia since 2012. “Our work is to help people live without alcohol or drugs. And we can’t give them anything that would stimulate and affect them again.”
Gonzalez said that sometimes people show up at the program asking for buprenorphine or methadone, but that they would leave when told that the group would not give any to them.
Questions about whether programs still use medically-assisted treatment
It is not known whether any groups offer these substances today. But Fahmy emphasized that information that this may have been a past practice adds urgency to his belief that these programs should be examined.
“If there’s any dispensing of opiates for the treatment of opiate dependence in these facilities, it should be investigated,” he said.
WBEZ shared information about possible illegal drug use at these programs with the Illinois Department of Human Services, which oversees the Division of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse (DASA). In a statement, DHS affirmed that it “does play a role in investigating facilities that provide medically-assisted detoxification services without a required license from DASA.” But it said DASA would have to receive a complaint about such a facility to trigger an investigation.
A spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration said he could not comment on the claims WBEZ heard about Suboxone and methadone use at the unlicensed programs. But he said, “If there are scheduled narcotics being given out by a non-prescribing entity, that sounds illegal.”
“It is time for the state to start implementing some process where we ensure that these facilities are properly run and properly supervised,” said Fahmy. The new information, he said, bolsters his belief that the programs should be brought into the state’s regulatory framework.