DuPage on pace for record number of heroin deaths
By Hank Beckman For Sun-Times Media September 25, 2013 10:22AM
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
Updated: September 27, 2013 4:38PM
DuPage is on pace this year to set a record for the number of heroin overdose deaths in a single year in the county.
With less than four months remaining, the DuPage County Coroner’s office is already reporting 38 heroin overdose deaths, the same number as last year’s all-time high.
“This is really a bad, dirty disease that’s in our community,” County Coroner Rich Jorgensen said. “There’s nothing romantic about it.”
The DuPage Coroner’s Office began tracking drug overdose deaths by individual drugs ingested in 2007. Heroin deaths averaged between 20 and 25 per year in the following years, until the epidemic spiked at 38 for 2012.
Jorgensen attributed the rise in fatalities, addiction and heroin use to multiple factors. First, he said, is the method of delivery. Where heroin users of the past used a drug that had to be injected by needle, today’s product is often refined to the point where it can be smoked or even snorted if it is of sufficient purity.
Also, the drug can increasingly be found in a relatively pure form.
“Our producers of these chemicals are much smarter (than before),” Jorgensen said.
The relative purity of the product also makes it more likely that the user will accidentally overdose by not realizing the strength of the dose they are taking, he said.
Another factor in the rise is heroin use is the relative cheapness of the drug, especially compared to another popular illegal substance, cocaine. A typical purchase of heroin these days can involve as little as $10, making it affordable for even those with a limited income.
Jorgensen stressed that the casual user of heroin is extremely rare, with the more likely result of experimentation being long-term addiction, rehab, or even death.
‘Need to wake up’
Yet another problem is that the high the drug produces is similar to that produced by taking medications prescribed for pain, such as Vicodin or oxycontin. He told the story of a high school athlete that became addicted when, after an injury, doctors prescribed oxycontin for pain. When the prescription ran out and the street price for the drug was cost prohibitive, he turned to heroin.
Jorgensen said that all too many doctors overprescribe drugs to begin with, making addiction to the prescription drug — what he called the first step on the road to other addictions — more likely.
“We have a significant number of people of all ages being addicted through us,” he said of the medical profession. “We need to wake up about our prescribing habit.”
All over the county
Although Jorgensen stressed that the problem was not limited to one single demographic or one particular area, the majority of heroin deaths are among those between 20 and 40 years old. Three teenagers have died from heroin overdoses in 2013, compared to one in 2012, and two overdoses this year have been in people over 60, compared to none in 2012.
Lombard led the county in 2012 heroin overdose deaths in with six. So far in 2013 Addison already leads with five, followed by Wheaton with four.
Jorgensen said that many communities have failed to take advantage of some preventative measures. He noted the increasing number of D.A.R.E. anti-drug programs being slashed from school budgets as a sign of the problem.
He acknowledged that many experts say that the program is not effective in preventing youth drug abuse.
“I totally disagree with that,” he said.
Jorgensen said he has run into difficulty convincing school officials to become involved in prevention efforts, especially when it comes to heroin. Either because of denial or fear of some sort of a stigma being attached to a school, he said a typical response he gets from school officials is that they “don’t want to be associated with heroin.”
Jorgensen said that while much more needs to be done to raise awareness of the problem, some action is already in the works. Beginning next month, some DuPage-area law enforcement officers will begin carrying Narcan, which Jorgensen described as a “pure antidote” for heroin overdoses.
The possession and use of the antidote by family members and others acting in good faith has been legal in Illinois since 2010, but Jorgensen noted that little had been done to implement a serious program using it. Part of the reluctance may be the fear of liability, and Jorgensen said that an amendment to state law might be one answer to that sticking point.
Getting the word out
Jorgensen is urging DuPage County leaders to use their positions to educate the public to the extent of the heroin crisis in the county.
County Board member Grant Eckhoff, who leads the Judicial and Public Safety Committee, said that reaching out to community experts, such as first responders and the State’s Attorney Office would be a good start.
“We need to find out if they have ideas or need some type of funding,” Eckhoff said.
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin noted the difficulty of the problem.
“It’s a terribly difficult issue to solve,” he said, but he noted that there is a “dialogue at the county” about the issue.