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Illinois’ Heroin Epidemic: What Caused It and How Do We Stop It?

If you’ve been following local news the past few years, it’s likely that you remember at some point seeing a story about the out-of-control heroin epidemic in Illinois. Articles have covered “the heroin epidemic in southern Illinois,” “heroin in northern Illinois,” and “the central Illinois heroin epidemic,” making this a problem that’s been plaguing every region of Illinois.

As people have started to become more aware of the severity and extent of this crisis that has swept the state, the media has begun finally calling it an epidemic, and lawmakers are directing attention toward passing anti-heroin legislation.

But, if you aren’t fully read up on the topic, these new developments can seem like they’re coming out of nowhere, rather than something that’s been developing for years. After all, it may certainly be that you’ve never seen real-life evidence of a heroin problem yourself. And so you may be lead to ask, how did we get here, what’s driving Illinois’ heroin epidemic? Just how bad is it? And what’s being done about it?

What’s The Extent of the Illinois Heroin Epidemic?Illinois Heroin Epidemic

Let’s start by describing what exactly it is that we mean when we talk about this crisis, and why many have justifiably taken to referring to it as an epidemic.

First of all, while Illinois does have it particularly bad, this is actually a nationwide problem. According to the CDC, fatal heroin overdoses quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, reaching 8,200 deaths per year, while the number of people who report heroin use within the past year more than doubled from 314,000 in 2007 to 681,000 in 2013.

Even so, Illinois is dealing with a uniquely immense wave of heroin addictions compared to other states. A report released last year by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University details the state’s combination of the most pervasive heroin use and the most rapidly declining treatment services.

At the national level, heroin treatment admissions made up an average of 16.4% of all admissions to state-funded treatment programs in 2012, the highest percentage since this started being recorded in 1992. But that’s nothing compared to Illinois, where heroin admissions made up 25% of all admissions, and in particular the Chicago Metropolitan Area, where they made up 35.1%, more than twice the national average.

In 2011, the Chicago Metropolitan Area’s had 23,627 emergency department mentions for heroin—the most in the nation, the second most per capita next to Boston, and almost twice as many as New York. Cook County also had the highest percentage in the country of people who tested positive for opiates (including heroin) after being arrested—18.6%.

Things have only gotten worse in the few years since then. Chicago’s collar counties had 439 heroin deaths from 2013 to 2015, with one death every 56.5 hours in 2015.

Perhaps worst of all, while all this has been happening, the amount that Illinois spends combating heroin addiction and providing life-saving treatment programs has been drastically diminished. Illinois’ General Revenue funding for addiction treatment programs went down 30%, from $111 million in 2007 to $79 million in 2012. This reduction translated to Illinois becoming the state with the largest reduction in treatment capacity in the nation, with a state-funded treatment rate 50% lower than the national average and lower than every other Midwestern state.

And now, in 2016, the ICDP report predicts that “state funding for addiction treatment could decrease by as much as 61 percent.”

What’s Causing the Heroin Epidemic in Illinois?

Since we’ve now seen that this is indeed an epidemic, now we can search for solutions, but first we need to understand the root causes of the problem. So what’s behind this devastating surge in heroin usage across the nation?

Well, there’s one trend that nearly everyone involved in the issue agrees is largely responsible: prescription opioid abuse. The CDC calls this the “strongest risk factor for heroin addiction.” Opioids are the family of drugs that includes morphine, codeine, prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin, and, yes, heroin.

The CDC reports that although the amount of pain Americans report hasn’t really changed, sales of prescription opioids quadrupled from 1999 to 2014. Overdose deaths from prescription opioids also quadrupled—now, prescription opioids account for more than half of overdose deaths from all opioids, including heroin.

But apart from their own inherent dangers, prescription opioids also fuel heroin addiction. Most users start off getting their opioids for free from friends or family who had a prescription, or were prescribed it themselves. But as these sources become more elusive, many users at some point transition to heroin, which offers a similar high but is cheaper and sometimes more easily obtained.

As a result, three studies have recently found that nearly half of young heroin users started with prescription opioids. And since people tend to do the drugs their friends do—the effects of peer pressure are well documented—who knows how many of the users who didn’t start with prescription opioids got into heroin due to the influence of friends who did make that transition?

What’s Being Done About It?Image of Street Post with One Way Addiction and the Other a Way Out

So, how are we tackling this problem?

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors are starting to test the waters with charging suppliers more often with “drug-induced homicide” when someone dies of an overdose, a charge that carries heavy penalties beyond that of just drug conspiracy. But this tactic is proving controversial and not entirely effective, as it’s often very difficult to sort out who’s a supplier and who’s another victim of addiction, as the roles usually overlap. Not only that, but it discourages people from getting help when their friend is overdosing, and only creates an opportunity for a new supplier to step in and fill the gap in market demand.

Lawmakers meanwhile have been drafting laws to combat the epidemic. The Heroin Crisis Act, also known as Lali’s Law, passed last year when the state congress overwhelmingly overrode Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto. The law: required Medicaid to cover addiction treatment, and provided insurance coverages for heroin/opioid antidotes; required police to carry the lifesaving overdose-reversal drug naloxone, as well as making it available to individuals through pharmacies; required DHS to start a take-back program to collect unused medications; required more rigorous reporting on overdoses from medical examiners; and initiates several public awareness campaigns.

But this law still isn’t comprehensive. Two bills introduced by Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie build on it to make treatment more accessible for users.

Yet, laws take a very long time to pass, fund, and enact. In the meantime, people still need help. That’s why nonprofits and other organizations are trying to pick up the slack. We here at New Directions Addiction Recovery Services, for example, run The Other Side, a sober bar in Crystal Lake. We also have recently won the small but important victory of getting to open a new sober-living house.

Funded by a grant from the Foglia Family Foundation, this project took a long time. The location initially chosen and converted was unanimously voted down by the zoning commission which felt it was the wrong neighborhood for it, and the eventual second location received a 3-3 vote with no recommendation either way despite meeting all requirements and proper zoning. Then we went to the City Council to present our case, along with the mayor, who gave an impassioned speech in our support. As a result the council voted 5-2 in our favor, and we received the permit we’d been seeking.

In these dark times, as lawmakers and other officials try to work out large-scale solutions to tackle the problem of heroin addiction in Illinois, it’s comforting to know that there are still points of light in the darkness, giving hope to even a handful of people who need it. Here at New Directions Addiction Recovery Services, that sort of hope is exactly what we try to give those struggling with addiction. If you’d like to contribute to our work, or if you or someone you know needs help, please feel free to give us a call at (779) 220-0336. We’re always here to offer a helping hand.

The Other Side
93 E Berkshire Dr, Unit G
Crystal Lake, IL 60014
(779) 220-0336
info@the-other-side.org

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