Heroin exacting a toll on suburbia
By Susan Frick Carlman email@example.com April 17, 2012 12:29PM
Naperville Police Community Affairs officer Sgt. Gregg Bell show a small anount of heroin Thursday at the Naperville Police Station. Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
This is not your parents’ heroin.
After gaining notoriety in the “psychedelic ’60s” before taking a back seat to cocaine, Ecstasy and other recreational drugs, abuse of the killer narcotic has resurged in recent years. Today heroin maintains a choke hold on many of those who abuse illegal substances, particularly young Chicago suburbanites. And it is deadlier than ever.
A recent Roosevelt University study found heroin use among teens in Chicago’s collar counties went up 46 percent between 2008 and 2009. The number of Illinois residents who checked in to publicly funded programs for treatment of addiction to the drug more than quadrupled from 1998 to 2008, reaching 17,411 at the end of the decade. Coroners’ records show that in DuPage and Will counties, 235 people died from heroin overdoses between 2005 and 2010. Three times in as many weeks last month, Naperville police arrested suspected heroin traffickers in the city.
Addictions specialists at Linden Oaks Hospital at Edward are keenly aware of the narcotic’s grip on many young people. According to Beth Sack, the Naperville facility’s manager of addiction services, most patients age 18 to 25 are abusing opiates, either pharmaceuticals or heroin.
For one Naperville mother, the roller-coaster ride of addiction has brought much heartache.
Her son, who has had multiple arrests for heroin possession, was hours away from entering a local inpatient treatment program when her ex-husband picked him up from her house and gave him refuge.
“I was furious at both of them ... I told my (now 21-year-old) son that I would no longer pay his phone bill or bail him out of jail,” the woman wrote in an email to The Sun. “When he was ready to have a relationship with me and my family (who live just 6 miles away), we would be available, with open arms. He hasn’t talked to me since, and changed his cell phone (my only means of contact).”
Sack said the possibility of accidentally administering a lethal dose has little deterrent effect on most heroin users.
“It’s kind of interesting with these young adults,” she said. “It really doesn’t faze them.”
Sgt. John McAnally of the Naperville Police Department said the it-can’t-happen-to-me mind-set keeps the object lessons from hitting home.
“They think, ‘They don’t know what they’re doing, but I do,’” he said.
Sack and McAnally agree heroin has maintained a strong and steady presence over the past several years, posing a substantial concern for public health, safety and law enforcement.
“I’d say it’s the same. We just made some headway in some of our investigations” in March, McAnally said, adding that the department still has an unspecified number of cases yet to yield arrests. “It’s a problem all over Illinois, quite frankly.”
Part of the danger is the drug’s potency. Heroin now is far purer than it was a couple of decades ago, when addicts would “cook” the drug in spoons to burn off the impurities before injecting it.
“Now it’s a purer level, so they can use it by snorting it,” McAnally said.
If the user is accustomed to something that’s 40 or 50 percent pure and then buys a product that is not so deeply cut, coming in closer to 80 percent pure, it’s impossible to know the dosage should be adjusted, and the risk of overdose is high.
“There’s no quality control on who’s stepping on it, how pure it is,” McAnally said.
The option of inhaling the drug also draws a lot of users who wouldn’t consider sticking a needle in their arm — but that delivers a quicker and more intense high.
“A lot of times in people’s minds, when people start to use, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s OK. I’m not using a needle,’” Sack said. “I think when they do, it’s really, ‘Wow, I’ve moved on to that now.’”
And when they do, the physical dependency is generally much advanced.
“They’re not using it to get high anymore,” McAnally said. “They’re using it to not feel bad.”
Supply and demand
The market landscape also has changed in the past few years. Users used to drive into the city to pick up their supply, but now the demand is sufficient to entice sellers to bring their wares out here, usually from Chicago, “based on the money,” McAnally said.
And while dealers not long ago would often give away the first taste, confident that the intensity of the high would bring patrons back with their wallets in hand, they no longer find that necessary. The market is plenty strong now.
“The guys coming out here are actually charging more, like a tax,” McAnally said.
Another contributing factor is the drug’s relatively low cost. When people have developed a habit of abusing prescription opiates such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, they find it easy to move on to heroin.
“That’s what we’ll hear,” Sack said. “They’ll say, ‘I was using pills, but then I couldn’t get them, and heroin is cheaper, so I started doing that.’”
A gram sells for about $200, but users most frequently buy small foil packages containing a hit, enough for one high. Those go for $10.
“It’s not like it’s a hundred bucks, but a lot of these kids will use four or five of those in a day,” McAnally said.
As police continue the local drug war, he said parents can take steps that may help keep their teens safe.
“Like any kind of drug or alcohol abuse, you really have to monitor where they’re going, what they’re doing, who they’re with,” he said. “We’ve known about that for 40 years.”
He acknowledged that it’s unlikely the intense vigilance will be welcomed. The backlash could be fierce and hurtful.
“But going to their funeral is a lot worse.”