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More powerful, user-friendly heroin moving to the suburbs

Bill Patrianakos

Bill Patrianakos

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Updated: August 23, 2012 10:32AM



He stole from his family and pawned his belongings, but Bill Patrianakos still couldn’t afford his OxyContin habit.

Desperate and broke in 2007, he searched the Internet for stories about heroin arrests. Then he headed to the location he found online — the Austin exit off Interstate 290 — to see what he could score.

“I figured heroin was cheaper than pills,” Patrianakos, 25, a Web developer from Joliet, said in an interview. “I just kind of drove around the neighborhood and went up to every person I saw.”

One man agreed to give Patrianakos information about where to find the drug if he gave him a ride.

“You don’t really have friends when you’re a drug addict, but it was kind of like friends,” he said. “He was my connection. He would help me find it.”

The image of the heroin user as a burnout, slumped in a city alley with a dirty tourniquet and a used needle, is fading. Today’s heroin, more powerful and user-friendly than ever, is entrenched in the suburbs, which in recent years have seen a spate of overdoses, some of them fatal.

Since January 2011 in Naperville alone, seven people have died after overdosing on the drug known as “dragon.” Thirty fatally overdosed on heroin in Will County in 2011; seven in Kane County last year. Lake County saw a 130 percent increase in heroin-related deaths between 2000 and 2009.

In Chicago, between 1998 and 2007, hospital discharges for heroin users 20 to 24 decreased 67 percent. But the collar counties saw a 200 percent increase, according to “Understanding Suburban Heroin Use,” a study from the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University.

“People have a picture in their head of who the drug addict is,” said Patrianakos, who started using drugs as a Lockport Township High School senior headed to Loyola University Chicago. He used heroin for more than a year before he was arrested for counterfeiting money and finally successfully completed rehab in 2008. “The drug addict is your own kid, the normal-looking kid who is in high school.”

‘Worst drug out there’

Some people have dubbed I-290 and Roosevelt Road “heroin highways” because of all the users traveling from the western suburbs and beyond into Chicago in search of the drug.

An increase in suburban buyers could be part of the reason federal agents seized more heroin in Chicago — 400 pounds — than ever before in 2011. The local office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, for the first time, initiated more cases against heroin traffickers than those trading in cocaine.

Jack Riley, special agent in charge of the Chicago office of the DEA, said heroin-pushing Mexican cartels are strongly tied to Chicago street gangs.

Today’s heroin is a different product than 30 years ago, he said.

“This heroin is far more potent and more cosmetically acceptable,” he said. “Needles are not required. It can be smoked and snorted and has a completely different user base.”

Once called “black tar” because of its appearance, heroin now looks similar to powder cocaine.

“No longer are needles required, so the fear of AIDS or hepatitis is gone,” Riley said. “It’s to the point where it really alarms me that some people think it might be a recreational-type drug. Clearly it’s not — it’s the worst drug out there.”

Chicago’s suburbs aren’t the only place heroin is popping up.

“If you look at Minneapolis, if you look at Milwaukee, if you look at St. Louis, if you look at Indianapolis, all of the suburbs of those communities are beginning to see some of the same things we are seeing here,” Riley said. “And it is clearly the result of the influence of the Mexican cartels. They seized on a market and they’re making money on it.”

According to the Roose­velt study, treatment admissions nationally for teens and young adults for heroin increased nearly 60 percent from 1996 to 2006. In Illinois, nearly 70 percent of teens under 18 admitted to public treatment facilities for heroin use were white.

While some are introduced to heroin as a way to come off their cocaine or crack high, or through other drugs, the user base is increasingly young adults, like Patrianakos, who come to heroin after developing a dependency on prescription pain-killers such as Vicodin and OxyContin.

“Off-label or non-medically indicated prescription drug use is really beginning to increase,” said Stephanie Schmitz, associate director of Roosevelt’s Illinois Consortium of Drug Policy and co-author of the suburban heroin study. “Pragmatically, it made sense when you start using pills. They’re expensive, difficult to acquire and at some point, as you really get dependent on these opiates, heroin becomes much more accessible, much more affordable drug use. It comes with a whole host of problems.”

Changing the message

Drug education programs in some schools often go into less detail on the specific dangers of heroin use than other drugs.

“Everyone knew you shouldn’t do it and everyone knew it was the big bad kingpin of drugs, but what we took away was there wasn’t a lot of understanding beyond that,” Schmitz said of her interviews with young suburban users. “They had maybe been let down by the education they received.”

The teens Schmitz interviewed — those who used and did not use heroin — said typically drug education at Illinois schools focused on cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana and only gave a broad overview of other illicit substances. “When they talked about heroin they said, ‘Don’t do it’ in the same way they said, ‘Don’t do pot — it’s bad,’ ” Schmitz said teens and young adults told researchers.

John Roberts, a former Chicago Police Department captain, is trying to change that message. After retiring from the force in 2004, he and his family moved to southwest suburban Homer Glen, a place he never suspected his son would find hard drug use. His son Billy died after overdosing on heroin when he was 19.

“He didn’t know to fear it as kids my age did,” Roberts said. “Kids have to be told to fear this stuff.”

Roberts co-founded the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization to educate residents about heroin use. Patrianakos is on the group’s board.

While hundreds have attended education forums he has been a part of, Roberts thinks the local suburban community is “absolutely in denial” about heroin use in their communities. “Parents, the community, the schools, a lot of our social institutions don’t really recognize it, then admit or accept the fact it is a serious problem,” he said.

He hopes that’s changing. A Hinsdale-based health- education group is using the Roosevelt study to rethink drug education and introduce it to suburban schools.

“Not only do we have to recognize the problem, but we have to have the courage to say what we’re doing isn’t working,” Roberts said. “All of us, schools, law enforcement, the courts — if we know things aren’t working, can we find out why and then put together new and effective strategies?”



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