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Broader audience for heroin in Southland as drug becomes more ‘user-friendly’

Allen J. Sandusky right Frank Comber from South Suburban Council Alchoholism Substance Abuse look over classroom facility East Hazel Crest

Allen J. Sandusky, right, and Frank Comber, from the South Suburban Council on Alchoholism and Substance Abuse, look over a classroom at the facility in East Hazel Crest, IL on Friday April 20, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Local forums this week

Monday

Lincoln-Way-area residents are invited to a forum about teen alcohol use and the availability and use of narcotics by Will County youth. The forum is from 6 to 7 p.m. at Lincoln-Way North High School, 19900 S. Harlem Ave., in Frankfort. Attendees should use entrance door 46.

Wednesday

Orland Township will sponsor a public symposium on alcohol and drug abuse, with a focus on heroin, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the gym at Sandburg High School, 13300 S. LaGrange Road in Orland Park.

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Updated: May 30, 2012 8:02AM



In a refurbished motel in East Hazel Crest, some of the guests have been known to come down with “the flu.”

Young men staying at the South Suburban Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse are trying to get through withdrawal symptoms of going without heroin, and it’s not pretty.

“Withdrawal has been described as an extremely bad case of the flu” lasting three or four days, said Frank Comber, whose job is to keep the men who come to him clean and sober.

A patch used to treat people with high blood pressure can help ease the side effects, but what works best is simply more heroin, and there’s nothing stopping the men from walking out the door to do just that.

Sometimes, when Comber and his staff try to talk them out of leaving, “it’s like they are almost staring through you,” he said.

Once relegated to seedy inner-city shooting galleries, heroin is galloping across the south and southwest suburbs, being embraced by the so-called “good kids” who see it as an enticing risk or an escape from the pressures of modern life.

“This isn’t something that is just happening in Palos Hills or Orland Park or Tinley Park; it’s happening in all the suburbs,” Sara Moscato Howe, chief executive of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, said. “There is no demographic for this.”

A 1994 graduate of Stagg High School in Palos Hills, Howe said that the association’s members — addiction prevention and treatment facilities — began seeing an uptick in admissions for heroin use in 2009, and the trend is continuing.

Heroin becomes ‘user-friendly’

An evolution of the drug itself is drawing in more users. What’s on the market today is far purer, cheaper and more potent than the heroin available a few years ago and can be snorted, like cocaine, or smoked.

“Heroin is seen as the perfect storm,” said Judy Emerson, a spokeswoman for Rosecrance, which operates substance abuse treatment centers, including one in Frankfort. “It’s cheap, readily available and user-friendly.”

Young people who couldn’t imagine sticking a needle in their arm are less squeamish about inhaling the powdery substance.

“It’s the new face of the heroin addict,” said Cheryl Kokaska, a counselor and outreach coordinator with Orland Township’s youth and family services department. “It’s not just the marginal student anymore. It’s the cheerleader, it’s the football player.”

Overall, for kids coming to Rosecrance for help, pot is “still by and large the drug of choice,” Emerson said. But the Rockford-based nonprofit has seen opiates — which can include prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin as well as heroin — rise to No. 2 as the cited “drug of choice” among teens seeking addiction treatment, she said.

For those 18 and older going to Rosecrance for substance abuse help, opiates have overtaken alcohol as the most-cited drug, Emerson said.

Booze, pot seen as gateways

Before she went to work for Rosecrance as an addiction counselor and community relations coordinator, Mary Egan spent several years at Oak Lawn Community High School, where she helped establish the Red Ribbon Committee. The group is still going strong, encouraging kids to eschew alcohol and drugs and holding events such as a spring block party.

It’s dabbling with booze, then later perhaps pot, that is serving as a pathway to heroin.

“People don’t start experimenting, typically, with opiates,” she said. “They’re experimenting with alcohol and marijuana.”

For many kids, their first experience with opiates is as close as their parents’ medicine cabinet.

“Kids come across prescription (painkillers) given for a medical condition or after surgery, and maybe just one or two pills were taken” and the rest are languishing in the bathroom, Allen Sandusky, the South Suburban Council’s president and chief executive, said. “They sell pills to other kids.”

For 22-year-old Steve, who’s at the council trying for the fourth time to kick heroin, painkillers were his gateway.

He played football and wrestled in high school, but after hurting his knee, he said, he “dabbled in opiates,” turning to prescription painkillers. That worked for a while, he said, but by his senior year in college he’d turned to heroin.

Adolescents struggling with heroin addiction typically are sent to residential treatment centers — Steve, when he was younger, went through the program at Rosecrance. Because it doesn’t have a residential program for heroin users younger than 18, the South Suburban Council doesn’t see young teens. However, Comber, who oversees the men’s residential program that Steve is in, said he’s seen a definite increase in heroin use among 18- to 21-year-olds seeking the council’s help.

Funding cuts hurt prevention

Groups that see firsthand the pull heroin exerts over its users — and the damage it leaves in its wake — are worried that in the Legislature’s upcoming budget talks, money for battling drug abuse could be dramatically reduced.

Sandusky said the council treats about 1,000 fewer people each year compared with four years ago because of reduced state funding, and that the nonprofit is waiting for reimbursements from the state totaling $1.3 million. Cash reserves and a line of credit from the bank have allowed the council to pay the bills, he said.

But there are concerns about the potential for deep cuts in funds the state doles out for substance abuse prevention programs, which could ultimately bring more people to places such as the council seeking treatment, he said.

“The resources available to help treat (substance abuse) are diminishing at the same time the need is rising,” Sandusky said.



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