Drug use at Lollapalooza: mixed messages from City Hall

Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady defended signs her department posted at Lolla, urging attendees to test their drugs and have Narcan, used to treat overdoses. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was “compelled as the mother of a 14-year-old to say, ‘Don’t even experiment.”

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The Lollapalooza music festival is back in Grant Park.

The Lollapalooza music festival is back in Grant Park.


Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago’s top doctor sent mixed messages on Thursday to the thousands of young people streaming into Lollapalooza for a weekend of music and partying.

It happened after Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady was asked about the unusual signs posted at the Grant Park music festival by the Chicago Department of Public Health that some think may appear to sanction or, at least, openly acknowledge illicit drug use by Lolla attendees.

Those signs apparently mirror a message also tweeted out by the health department, which urged visitors to stay safe this weekend, warned them about fentanyl and reminded them that they can email the health department to get both kits to test for fentanyl, as well as doses of Narcan, which is used to treat overdoses.

Arwady said her department is all about “eliminating health risks” — and that means “all health risks,” including drug overdoses.

“We regularly see — and have for years — that young people who attend festivals often are feeling very free and often experiment … with illicit substances. The problem is that so many of those illicit substances now are laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl is a very strong opioid,” Arwady said.

For people who are “routinely” on “very strong medications” or using heroin, taking a drug laced with fentanyl is “dangerous, but probably not fatal,” the commissioner said. But, there’s a caveat.

“If you have a young person … who does not routinely use opioids and they experiment with a substance — even one that they think is something that their friend is giving them — we are increasingly seeing fentanyl laced into those substances. People think this is just gonna be a pill that helps them have fun,” Arwady said.

The crowd begins to enter Grant Park on Thursday morning for Lollapalooza.

The crowd begins to enter Grant Park on Thursday morning for Lollapalooza.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Long before young people started descending on Grant Park for the world’s largest outdoor music festival, the Chicago Department of Public Health started distributing “hundreds of thousands” of free fentanyl test strips.

They’re available — no questions asked — at all Chicago Public libraries.

If the strip “turns a color” after a “small amount of the substance” is placed on it, Arwady said: “You know there’s fentanyl in it. Don’t use it.”

As for the sign’s reference to Narcan, Arwady noted it is used to treat someone who “stops breathing” after a drug overdose.

“You spray it up somebody’s nose and, instantly if it’s an opioid overdose, you save their life,” the commissioner said.

“Honestly, if I had — given how much of a problem we’re having with opioid overdose — a choice between everybody knowing CPR and everybody knowing how to use and carrying Narcan, I would probably choose Narcan. Especially in groups that are younger. We also have that available [at the festival] free.”

Arwady urged Lolla attendees to “be safe.”

“Every year, we see young people end up admitted to the hospital because they’ve experimented at a time when we just want people to have fun but have fun safely,” she said.

Lightfoot has a teenage daughter.

As a parent, the mayor appeared more concerned about sending an unambiguous message to young people and their parents and less concerned about acknowledging the reality of illicit drug use at outdoor music festivals.

“I feel compelled, as the mother of a 14-year-old to say, ‘Don’t even experiment. Don’t pick it up. Don’t try it. Go there. Have fun. But using illicit drugs is a huge risk. And frankly, you don’t know if you’re one of those folks who is predisposed to addiction,” Lightfoot said to a smattering of nervous laughter.

“So, I would just say, ‘Go. Have fun. But leave the drugs to the side. Don’t do it.”

Lightfoot said she plans to attend the festival. She didn’t say whether she plans to accompany her daughter, Vivian.

“I’ll be there tonight to kick it off. There’s a couple of artists that I want to see. I’m looking forward to seeing Dua Lipa [on Friday] ... and we have some special things planned for Sunday to kick off the K-Pop artist who’s coming,” said the mayor, a huge music fan.

Lightfoot didn’t mention Metallica in the list of artists she’s looking forward to seeing. But she’s already had a taste.

“I was there last night for the Metallica sound set. And I will say — as a kid of the ’60’s and ’70’s — I haven’t heard Metallica in a long time. They brought it. It was a great, great little mini-concert. They were sounding fantastic,” she said.

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