Dan Bigg, The Godfather Of Harm Reduction, Has Passed Away

By Tessie Castillo 08/24/18

Bigg, who co-founded the largest community-based naloxone distribution network in the country, was 59 years old. 

Dan Bigg

On Tuesday, the harm reduction community lost a godfather. Dan Bigg, co-founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, died suddenly at home at 59 years old.

Bigg started his journey to harm reduction in the mid-1980s working at the Illinois Health Association’s Drug Addiction AIDS Project. He was frustrated at the growing rate of HIV infection among people who injected drugs and how stigma often forced people with HIV out of their 12-step recovery programs, alienating them from support systems.

Along with a few other people, he put together an HIV information and support group composed of active and former drug users. In time, the support group didn’t seem like enough. Bigg wanted to do more. So in 1992 he co-founded the Chicago Recovery Alliance (CRA), a place where former and active drug users and people with HIV could find community and health resources.

One of Chicago Recovery Alliance’s first programs was a syringe exchange, which was against Illinois law at the time. But laws never stopped Bigg. By teaming up with public health researchers, CRA was able to start distributing sterile syringes to help prevent the spread of HIV. But that exchange was just the beginning.

In 1996, Bigg’s dear friend and co-founder of CRA, John Szyler, died of a heroin overdose. In his grief, Bigg launched a new initiative, one that would eventually be replicated across the country and save tens of thousands of lives—the first community-based naloxone distribution program.

At the time, naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdose, was only available in ambulances and emergency room departments. Bigg put forth the novel and controversial idea to put naloxone into the hands of people who need it most—active drug users. He began working with medical doctors to figure out a distribution model that would be as hassle-free as possible for people who use drugs and their loved ones.

The program was met with criticism from those who said that active drug users were not capable of utilizing naloxone properly, or that giving them access to a life-saving drug would encourage risky behavior. To these people, Bigg gave the middle finger. Any positive change as a person defines it for him or herself, was his philosophy. A life saved was certainly positive change.

The CRA would become the largest community-based naloxone distribution network in the country and soon be replicated in dozens of other states.

Bigg was honored with the Norman E. Zinberg Award for Achievement in the Field of Medicine at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in 2015 and won numerous other awards. But he was not a man for frills or recognition. He continued the work tirelessly up until the day he died because he believed it was the right thing to do.

The harm reduction community honors him. The people saved with community-based naloxone owe him their lives. The world has lost a legend.

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Tessie Castillo is a writer and drug policy advocate in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her articles explore topics such as criminal justice reform, drug policy, and harm reduction. Castillo previously served as the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a statewide nonprofit that advances drug policy and criminal justice reform. During that time, she played a pivotal role in helping to legalize syringe exchange programs and expand access to naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose. Find Tessie at her website or on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.