In 2010, 35 people died of a heroin overdose in Lake County, nearly triple the amount in 2007. In the suburban areas outside of Chicago, the number of teens released from the emergency room after a heroin related problem increased by 38% from 2008 to 2009, while in Chicago that number increased by 1% percent. This new data reinforces reports that heroin has moved outside of the city and into the hands of suburban youth.
The Chicago metropolitan area has the worst heroin problem in the country, and it appears to be affecting a larger population. On a national scale, the amount of Mexican heroin produced in a year has increased from 6.8 metric tons to 50 metric tons in the past seven years, which has dramatically increased the supply in the U.S. With the increased supply, heroin has become purer, cheaper, and more available in suburban areas.
Heroin has the potential for strong psychological and physical addiction. After just a short time, a heroin user can develop tolerance to the drug and require more for the same effects. The body quickly develops a dependency on the drug, and experiences painful and potentially lethal physical withdrawal symptoms in its absence. Users will do anything for the drug, leading to a life a crime and isolation. The rise of heroin use has tragic consequences for a family and a community.
Research shows that the increase in heroin use is linked to prescription painkiller abuse. Powerful painkillers known as “opioids” have the same ingredients as heroin and produce the same addictive “high”, but can be found in a family medicine cabinet. Like heroin, prescription opioid abuse is on the rise - more than 475,000 emergency department visits in the United States were due to misuse of pills, a number that has nearly doubled in five years. Prescriptions drugs are now the second most common substance used by a first time drug-user, behind marijuana. According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, 41% of teens believe that prescription drugs are less harmful than illegal drugs – a very dangerous assumption that could not be farther from the truth.
In fact, heroin and prescription opioids are interchangeable – if comparable amounts are taken, the body experiences the same highs and withdrawals. Prescription drugs are typically more expensive and more difficult to find, so in time many prescription pill abusers turn to heroin. The Department of Justice reports that a person addicted to opioids with a relatively high tolerance may take 5 oxycodone (Oxycotin) pills a day for the cost of $400. That same individual could maintain their addiction with 2 grams of heroin, for as little as $150 dollars a day.
The costs to individuals and to our community are rising. But there is a way to reverse this trend.
Last week I held a heroin drug roundtable with Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and several other leaders throughout the Lake County community. Each person had a unique perspective about the dangers of heroin but one thing was clear: a successful strategy will target the problem in different ways.
There is no question that there are misconceptions about heroin and its prevalence in our community. It’s important that families understand that old stereotypes of inner-city junkies are outdated. Now the typical heroin addict is a young white adult who lives in the suburbs. A heroin addict can be a member of our family or a friend in the community, and it’s critical that we support those seeking recovery.
Prevention requires effective education and we need to target the right age groups and communicate the different ways one encounters heroin and the reasons for trying it. It is extremely important that parents and kids understand that prescription painkillers and heroin are made from the same plant and are equally powerful and addictive.
Parents need to know the facts about heroin as well. They need to know the signs of addiction, who is at risk, and how to get someone help when they need it. I plan to host a discussion for parents with experts in our community so parents can ask questions about heroin abuse and understand how to prevent it.
I am encouraged by discussions I have had and by the efforts of those in our community. I believe that the people of Lake County can work together to stop heroin abuse and make positive steps for the future.