By DON SJOERDSMA and ALEXANDRA M. SCHWAPPACH, Medill News Service
It started with Dramamine.
John Roberts’ son first experimented recreationally with the over-the-counter drug that’s commonly used for motion sickness. Taken in larger doses and it can cause auditory and visual hallucinations. Just a couple of years later, he was shooting heroin. In September 2009, the 19-year-old died of a heroin overdose in a friend’s apartment.
As a patrolman and a captain, Roberts spent his adult life fighting drug users and distributors on the south and west sides of Chicago, but he never expected heroin, which he refers to as “poison,” to make its way into his Homer Glen neighborhood, least of all his home.
“The war on drugs needs a new paradigm,” Roberts said. “I spent 30 years in law enforcement. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves if what we’re doing is most effective.”
In law enforcement, Roberts was solely focused on punishing the supply side of the drug market, arresting traffickers and small time dealers. A conversation with a friend shortly after his son’s death persuaded him to consider how the overwhelming demand for drugs fits in.
Inspired by his friend, Roberts formed the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization. It’s a group devoted to spreading awareness of the overdose statistics in collar counties, and lobbying for better in-school substance abuse education.
He is one voice in a growing chorus of community activists fighting what many call a “heroin epidemic” in Chicago’s suburbs.
The nature of the problem
Since 2000, heroin-traditionally seen as an inner-city drug-has had a rapidly growing impact on the collar counties.
In Will County, accidental deaths from heroin overdose have gone from five in 2000 to 26 in 2010, the coroner’s office reported. Opiate-related deaths in McHenry County have gone from 15 to 60 in the same period.
Pete McLenighan, the executive director of Stepping Stones, a substance abuse treatment program in Joliet, said that in 2006, 62 clients self-identified as users of heroin, or other opiates. Last year, approximately 138 clients, 26 percent of Stepping Stones clientele, say they have a problem with opiates.
“Particularly in our area, here in Illinois there’s a constant reference to kids driving into the city and obtaining it,” McLenighan said. “It is in suburban areas and rural counties as well.”
Heroin’s rise in the suburbs has changed the way McLenighan operates Stepping Stones. He has increased the existing security forces, so that opiate users can’t sneak drugs into the building. He has also helped raise awareness for treatments Stepping Stones doesn’t normally support, like Naloxone, which brings a user back from an overdose.
Known more commonly as Narcan, Naloxone is a drug that, once injected into the body, blocks the opiate receptors in the brain-In other words, it reverses the effects of an opiate-related, or heroin, overdose.
“Addressing this problem requires prevention, treatment, and law enforcement,” McLenighan said. “It requires everyone take a fresh look and examine how they’re doing things.”
This “epidemic” was first brought to the forefront when, in June 2010, the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy released the results of a 10-year study.
It reported that heroin is the second most common reason addicts enter treatment statewide, behind alcohol.
It further stated that the Chicago metropolitan area is first nationally in the percentage of arrestees testing positive for heroin, and the first in individuals admitted to the emergency room.
‘This stuff is safer than water’
Every Saturday on West 68th Street, just west of Halsted next to a pair of well-kept lawns and a row of non-descript houses, the large silver and red van is parked.
It’s hard to get around inside the van because it’s crowded with materials distributed on a daily basis-condoms, water, saline, cotton balls, and syringes, among others items. The volunteers can barely move from one side to the other without bumping into something.
The van is easy to find because that’s what it’s there for: When people are in need, they go to a Chicago Recovery Alliance location. But CRA distributes more than safe-sex products and cotton balls. They also distribute Naloxone, something they believe has saved more than 1,500 lives in the past seven years.
Cliff Sanchez, CRA outreach specialist, said he’s seen the drug perform miracles.
“We’ve had people in here, blue lips, eyes rolling back in their heads, and once we administer the Narcan, it brings people back,” he said.
An injection of 1cc of Naloxone-once administered intramuscularly to a person who has overdosed on heroin-will attach itself to any opiates in the brain and essentially erase them. CRA has been distributing the drug for more than five years.
Sanchez, who also works at the Loyola Medical Center, said Naloxone takes between 90 and 120 seconds to work, lasts 30 to 40 minutes, and can be injected as many times as needed. If a heroin user’s overdose comes back, Naloxone can be taken again and again until it is gone.
“The beautiful thing about this is that this stuff is safer than water,” Sanchez said.