Heroin abuse surging in Chicago and its suburbs

June 28, 2010

BY MONIFA THOMAS Staff, Chicago Sun Times Reporter

More people in Chicago and its suburbs are admitted to hospital emergency rooms for heroin use than in any other major city, and heroin is now the most common illegal substance for which people in Illinois enter drug treatment, a new study shows.

In addition, heroin-related deaths have risen sharply in the collar counties, as use of the drug continues to expand among young, white suburbanites.

These are among the key findings from a report released today by Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

The report — which is based on federal and state data on admissions to hospitals and drug treatment programs, as well as county death records — illustrates that heroin is “the most significant illicit drug threat in the Chicago metropolitan area,” according to co-authors Stephanie Schmitz and Kathleen Kane-Willis.

In 2008, there were nearly 24,000 heroin-related hospital admissions in the Chicago area, more than in any of the 12 other cities included in the federal government’s Drug Abuse Warning Network. New York and Boston had the next-highest totals.

“I get five or six heroin addicts per month in my treatment program,” said Dr. Jeffrey T. Johnson, medical director of the Behavioral Health Service of Central DuPage Hospital. “Alcohol is still the predominant drug, but with heroin, there’s been a rise over the last five years or so.”

Johnson said one reason more people might be seeking treatment is greater availability of naloxone and buprenorphine, replacement drugs that minimize symptoms of withdrawal.

While heroin users in Chicago tend to be middle-age and black, suburban users are more likely to be under 25 and white, researchers found. Young whites are also much more likely than blacks to inject heroin — a factor fueling a significant increase in injection drug use in Illinois over the last 10 years, Kane-Willis said.

In addition, deaths from heroin overdoses in McHenry and Lake counties have more than doubled in the last decade. Cook County, on the other hand, has seen a 16 percent decrease in heroin deaths since 2000, though deaths among white women have increased 40 percent.

Chicago’s status as a transportation hub and the increasing purity of heroin from South America and Mexico make it a cheaply available drug, Kane-Willis said.

Particularly for suburban youth, heroin has become “trendy and exciting,” and Internet sites make it easier to find, she said.

John Roberts, a retired Chicago Police officer whose 19-year-old son Billy died of a heroin overdose last year, said many parents aren’t aware of how available heroin is to their children.

“I know I wasn’t,” said Roberts, who lives in Homer Glen. “Their kids can try heroin for $10, and if they’re lucky, they never try it again.”

But Billy Roberts did try heroin again, and he got hooked. After showing some progress in treatment, Billy died of an overdose in September.

“He found an inexpensive drug, and he thought he could control it. And you can’t,” John Roberts said.

The report recommends putting a larger emphasis on heroin in drug education programs, increasing funding for substance abuse treatment and passing legislation to provide partial or full immunity to people who call 911 to report a drug overdose. Increasing the availability of syringes to injection drug users could also help prevent the spread of HIV and other infections, Kane-Willis said.

© Copyright 2010 Sun-Times Media

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