Heroin scourge begs for answers

February 23, 2014 5:08PM

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Updated: March 25, 2014 6:14AM

The hidden scourge of heroin addiction has been sneaking up on Illinois, and we need far better counter-measures before more people die needlessly.

As state Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) says, “What we are doing now is failing.”

The arrest Saturday of Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman obviously was a significant move in the right direction. Guzman’s Sinaloa syndicate is said to be responsible for the majority of heroin, as well as marijuana and cocaine, flowing into the Chicago region. But forgive us for suspecting the flow will continue, the money to be made simply too huge for the trafficking to be stymied by even Guzman’s arrest. Law enforcement alone cannot end the heroin scourge.

Signs of the problem are everywhere. DuPage County reported a record 46 heroin-related deaths in 2013. In Downstate Madison County, three victims of suspected overdoses were found within just a five-hour time period this month. In west suburban Riverside, a couple who authorities say were on a heroin binge were found slumped last week in a car stopped on a railroad crossing.

On Friday, the DuPage County Health Department hosted a roundtable event including the coroner, chiefs of police and state’s attorney to discuss the heroin epidemic. Two weeks ago, several DuPage County officials introduced a plan to crack down on heroin use and prevent deaths by targeting prescription-drug abuse and beefing up statutes that allow prosecutors to go after gang leaders. The officials would channel any additional revenues from forfeitures to fund substance-abuse treatment centers.

As for Lang, House Speaker Michael Madigan has appointed him to head an anti-heroin task force that will hold four hearings in the Chicago areas this spring.

The current system of relying on criminal penalties isn’t getting the job done. Heroin is everywhere, not just on seedy streets in bad neighborhoods. Some addicts are turning to heroin because crackdowns have made it harder to get prescription opiate painkillers. Others no longer can afford to buy illegally obtained prescription painkillers and are turning to heroin, which is cheaper.

The Mexican drug cartels, having made Chicago their Midwestern hub, are flooding the market with a relatively inexpensive heroin that can be snorted, so needles aren’t needed. Fatalities are going up partly because some heroin now is laced with fentanyl, an opioid that boosts heroin’s power but also makes it more hazardous.

Too often, families find their loved ones, particularly teens and young adults, have succumbed to addiction only after a fatal overdose occurs. The best-known recent death from heroin was that of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in New York on Feb. 2, but many Illinois families are dealing with the heartache of losing loved ones to the drug. And when heroin use goes up, so do related crimes such as burglary.

Illinois is not alone in its struggling with a surging heroin problem. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there was a 21 percent increase in fatal drug overdoses nationwide from 2006 to 2010. Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, where addiction is up 770 percent since 2000, this month devoted most of his state of the state address to the epidemic.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers last week voted to set up quick sanctions short of prison for offenders who violate their parole or probation so heroin addicts can get treatment. They also voted to open opiate treatment centers in underserved areas.

One answer is to widen the availably of naloxone, which if administered in time can save someone having an opiate overdose. That proposal was at the top of the agenda at Friday’s roundtable event in DuPage.

But nobody would say that’s enough. The pressure is on Lang’s task force to propose more creative solutions.

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