In 1998, Will County officials were surprised if they saw one or two deaths from heroin overdoses, Will County Coroner Pat O’Neil told those gathered for a community forum on heroin Nov. 14.
Now Will County is on track to have 48 deaths from heroin overdoses in 2012.
It’s a heroin epidemic, Will County officials said, during the event, hosted by Will County HELPS and Valley View School District. A public health crisis. Heroin is in your community. It’s readily available. It's very powerful, very addictive and incredibly dangerous. It’s cheap and easy to get.
Several circumstances have occurred to create a “perfect storm” for the heroin epidemic, Will County Judge Ray Nash said, and he expects it to get worse.
“The holidays in regards to heroin are quite grim,” Nash said. “It’s not unusual to lose six or seven people (to heroin overdoses) in eight to 10 days.”
Many officials bemoaned the lack of urgency and attention given to the increase in heroin use.
The Chicago area has the most severe heroin problem, according to a report from the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy from Roosevelt University.
In 2010, Chicago had the most emergency room visits involving heroin, with 24,360. New York City took a distant second with 12,226 visits. NYC had a 24 percent decrease from 2008. Chicago had a 2 percent increase.
Nash likened heroin to a terminal illness for the county. “Will County, you’ve got cancer,” he said.
Public officials have tried to spread the word for the past year and a half, they said, and heroin overdoses have continued to increase.
Unlike the heroin of years past, you don’t need a needle to use the drug – you can snort it or smoke it. Health officials call this new form of the drug “super heroin” because of its purity. In the past, heroin may have had a pureness in the single digits. Now it’s 50 to 60 percent pure, making an overdose increasingly likely.
“There is no experimenting with this new heroin,” said O’Neil. “It’s just too powerful.”
Where the heroin is coming from
The bulk of heroin is not coming from Will County, said Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow. It’s coming from Chicago.
There are 170 open-air heroin markets led by the street gang the Vice Lords, Nash said. Those markets are concentrated near Pulaski and Chicago Avenue. Glasgow said dealers will sell heroin to anyone.
“I could go up there, dressed like I am (in a suit) and buy it,” Glasgow said.
Heroin goes for $10 a hit or 13 hits for $100.
Dr. Joe Toiani of the Will County Health Department said his niece was introduced between her seventh and eighth grade years. She started receiving treatment for heroin addiction during her freshman year of high school. Her parents thought she was going to the "bad parts of town" for the drug. She said she got it at the Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg.
"Heroin is in your front yard, your school, your mall," Toiani said. "There's no such thing as drug-free zone."
Toiani of the Will County Health Department said he visited Valley View classrooms last year to talk about heroin. He asked the students both if they knew someone who had used heroin, and if they had some connection to purchasing the drug. There was a “surprising amount of hands” that were raised for both questions.
There were also critical misconceptions. Students believed that you could only become addicted or overdose on heroin if you injected it, not if you snorted or smoked it. If you’re safe in how you use it, it won’t be a problem, they thought.
Heroin is one of the most addictive chemicals known to man, according to Nash. Heroin produces an “incredible, first euphoric high,” that the user will never experience again but will chase after again and again.
Heroin slows down the vital functions of the body. Those who use it are sedated and lethargic. The drug irrevocably changes the brain.
“Parents ask me when their kids are in recovery, ‘When will my son or daughter come back?’” Burke said. “They’re not going to come back. They’re not the same.”
Heroin is also dangerous. It accounts for 90 percent of narcotic deaths in the United States.
Who uses heroin
Burke said there is no face of heroin.
“I could not point out anyone at risk of using heroin,” Burke said. “Part of the stigma is because people think when a child dies there has to be something wrong at home. That’s not true. The face of heroin has changed and we need to stop stigmatizing and start talking about the problem.”
Teenagers don’t understand heroin because it’s not focused on during drug education, said Kathleen Burke, of Robert Crown Center for Health Education.
“(The current curriculum) is very focused on tobacco, alcohol and marijuana,” Burke said. “(Some) feel strongly that if you prevent those, you won’t move on to the next drug.”
Burke said some argue if heroin or other drugs are not talked about, students won’t abuse them. But that’s doing students a disservice, she said.
Robert Crown is piloting a heroin education program at four high schools in four different counties. In a year, Robert Crown will know if the program works, Burke said. Then it can be brought to other Will County high schools.
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