Hundreds attend rally against heroin use in Will Co.
By Brian Stanley and Tony Graf Sun-Times Media April 13, 2012 10:52AM
Updated: June 14, 2012 1:51AM
ROMEOVILLE — Young voices spoke with moving realism. Professionals spoke with grave concern. Grieving fathers reflected on their losses.
And hundreds of visitors heard their message: Heroin is an epidemic in Will County.
“Too many of our citizens are dying, and it’s up to all of us to stop the senseless deaths,” County Executive Larry Walsh said.
Two local groups organized a large community forum Friday at Lewis University: HERO, the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization; and HELPS, an acronym for Heroin Education Leads to Preventative Solutions. The forum brought in speakers from law enforcement, the judiciary, government, health care, science, counseling and social work, and education and prevention.
“Heroin use in Will County has become catastrophic,” Will County Coroner Patrick K. O’Neil told the large audience in the university’s JFK Sports Center.
Since 1999, 205 heroin-related deaths have occurred in Will County.There have been nine so far this year.
At an evening youth rally, Bill Patrianakos spoke of his experiences, which The Herald-News detailed in Thursday and Friday’s editions. After graduating high school in 2005, Patrianakos was introduced to opiates in Homer Glen and eventually struggled with heroin.
Today, Patrianakos is recovered from his addiction and has been on the right track for years.
“We have a big problem here, and people are looking for a very simple, direct solution to it,” Patrianakos said. “When I talk to people, they always ask me for a very simple, direct solution, and I tell them, ‘There is none.’ ”
This is why forum organizers are calling for a comprehensive, community-wide approach.
A majority of heroin comes across the border from Mexico, with a high purity level and a relatively low price. Local teens buy the drugs in Chicago or, increasingly, at their schools, according to one presentation.
But the drug’s tentacles reach beyond big cities.
Will County Judge Ray Nash, who visits many communities as the field court judge for ordinance violations, said it’s not unusual to see three or four heroin users among the violators coming to court in the smallest communities.
“This is where you get a chance because the next stop is the house of pain, literally,” Nash said. “I admit I get a flutter in my heart when I see Mom and Dad step up behind a juvenile (before me) because it’s pretty rare. Often, there’s no parent there, but when I see that I’m (optimistic about) their chances.”
State’s Attorney James Glasgow spoke on the drug court program in Will County.
“When I wrote the grant back in 1998, there were only 347 courts nationwide. And now, there are 2,232 courts. The reason is ... they’ve worked,” Glasgow said.
If defendants are successful in applying to the drug court, they sign a contract pleading guilty but agreeing to comply with treatment recommendations for the duration of the program. Participants appear before a judge at least every other week and submit to random drug testing in addition to attending outside support meetings.
The drug court program has seen success stories, but also is seeing more heroin cases. Three or four years ago, prosecutors were seeing as few as nine or 10 heroin addicts per year. It’s now up to about 30.
And he said there’s also been an uptick in the number of users dying from the drug: from 10 in 2006 to 30 in 2011 — and nine so far this year, a rate that, if sustained, could surpass any year in recent memory.
“It’s skyrocketing,” Glasgow said. “It’s a product of the purity of the heroin.”
State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), was an assistant state’s attorney in Will County from 1999 to 2007. Reboletti wants Illinois to toughen its laws against heroin.
Currently, Illinois law mandates a prison sentence for offenders who sell between 5 grams and 15 grams of heroin, Reboletti said. Reboletti is proposing legislation to lower the minimum threshold to 3 grams.
Reboletti said the heroin epidemic in general has disproportionately hurt the collar counties ringing Chicago.
“We’ve seen increasing numbers, skyrocketing numbers, of deaths here in Will, up in DuPage County, in all the collars. And it’s basically at an epidemic proportion,” he said.
“We’ve talked to state agencies, and we’ve found out that we lose more young people to overdose deaths than we do in car accidents. And so it’s really the No. 1 killer now in the state of Illinois. ”
At the evening’s youth rally, Patrianakos spoke as well as Brian Kirk, a Homer Glen resident whose young son, Matthew, died of a heroin overdose in 2009.
In addition to Patrianakos, other young people spoke of their struggles with heroin in their lives and in the lives of family members.
“We wanted kids to hear from kids. Kids can tell the story, and people will listen,” said John Roberts, of Homer Glen, who worked with Kirk to found the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization. Roberts, like Kirk, also lost a son to a heroin overdose in 2009.
“The kids have to know and understand how serious a problem this is,” Roberts said.