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Roosevelt U. study finds Chicago area worst in nation for heroin abuse
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Staff

Once depicted as a drug relegated to the alleys of poor, rough, seedy, urban environs, heroin has found a new and thriving home in the suburbs.


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Published: 6/28/2010 12:00 AM

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Suburbs a big part of the problem

A new study by Roosevelt University concludes that skyrocketing heroin use in the suburbs has contributed to Chicago's rank among the worst nationally for heroin-related problems. The study found:

• Spikes in overdoses in collar counties. Heroin-related deaths are up 130 percent in Lake during the last decade, up 150 percent in three years in McHenry and double in just two years in Will County.

• Heroin is the most common illegal drug named in treatment programs and trails only alcohol as the reason Illinois residents seek treatment for substance abuse. Between 1998 and 2008 the number of people treated for heroin abuse in Illinois jumped from 4,150 to 17,411 to surpass cocaine and marijuana.

• White users of heroin generally are younger than African-American users in Illinois. In publicly funded treatment in 2008, nearly 70 percent of heroin users younger than 18 were white. Of those aged 20 to 24 entering public treatment facilities in 2008, 83 percent were white. In 2008, 86 percent of people aged 45 to 54 entering such facilities were African-American.

• Cook County Jail had the nation's highest rate of heroin use as a 2008 sample of detainees showed 29 percent tested positive for heroin. That sample also reported using heroin 26 days a month.

• Between 2004 and 2008, Chicago, suburbs and collar counties reported 23,931 hospital emergency department cases involving heroin, nearly 50 percent higher than heroin case in the New York City metropolitan area.

• The majority of teens discharged from hospitals after treatment for heroin issues live in the suburbs. In 2007, just 12 percent of those teens lived in Chicago, with 25 percent from suburban Cook County and 38 percent from collar counties.

• The study concludes that Illinois needs more comprehensive drug education, especially for young people; more funds for treatment programs; syringe-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV and other blood-borne diseases; increased use of overdose prevention and drugs; and support of a law that provides partial or full immunity to people who call 911 to report an overdose.

Once depicted as a drug relegated to the alleys of poor, rough, seedy, urban environs, heroin has found a new and thriving home in the suburbs.

Huge increases in heroin use among whites, suburbanites and teenagers are a major factor in why the Chicago area suffers what might be the nation's worst heroin problem, according to a new study released today.

"It's cheaper than a six-pack of beer and it's easier to get. Drug dealers don't ask for I.D.," says Kathleen Kane-Willis, one of the authors of the Roosevelt University report on heroin use in Illinois from 1998 to 2008.

In recent years there has been an "acknowledgment" that heroin exists in the suburbs, but the information in this study "is still a wake-up call," adds fellow Roosevelt researcher Stephanie Schmitz, who lives in Schaumburg. "It just seems so far removed from what we think our kids might be doing. But in fact, they are."

Hospital emergency rooms in the city, suburbs and collar counties treated 23,931 people with heroin issues between 2004 and 2008, 50 percent more than were treated for heroin abuse in New York City, according to the report. In a sampling of people detained at Cook County Jail in 2008, 29 percent tested positive for heroin, more than double the rate of Washington, D.C., which had the second-highest rate. Those who tested positive also reported using heroin 26 days a month.

The study found that people in Illinois seek treatment for heroin problems more than any other illegal substance, and second only to alcohol.

"That was pretty surprising to me," admits Kane-Willis, who already was well-versed in the growth of heroin problems.

While urban areas might be more familiar with the downsides of heroin, "people growing up in the suburbs don't know how dangerous it is," says Chrystal Beinlich, who installed a heroin-awareness billboard in Wheeling after the overdose death of her 18-year-old son, Nick, in 2007. "As a parent, I wasn't aware that it was in my community."

The Lincolnshire mom says she still sees parents who naively suggest heroin couldn't be a problem for their good kids, or that they'd know, and put a stop to it, if their children were exposed to a drug that could kill them.

"Don't you think I have that same mentality?" Beinlich says, noting that kids sometimes assume that something as cheap, plentiful and popular as heroin must not be that bad. "Good kids make bad decisions all the time."

Adults who grew up with images of heroin as a dangerous drug done only by "junkies in alleys" might not realize how prevalent it is in the suburbs, says Michelle Hines, a Lake Zurich mom who is active in heroin-related programs such as Hearts of Hope in Geneva and a 12-step recovery program hosted by Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington.

"In areas where you just have not historically had a lot of heroin abuse or seen a lot of addicts, you don't get a sense of how damaging it can be," Schmitz says, adding that older addicts might help others avoid overdoses or at least serve as living reminders of how heroin can ruin lives. "You don't have the guy on the corner nodding out. In the suburbs, it's much more hidden."

A generation ago, someone had to be connected to the drug world to know where to buy heroin and even how to inject it. Now, heroin is easier to find and use, and the Internet provides how-to directions that often fail to report the dangers, the researcher says.

"In the suburbs you have no idea what this drug does," Kane-Willis says. Kids think they are smart enough to avoid addiction, overdoses and the woes of heroin.

"These clusters of kids are doing it on their own and that's really scary," Schmitz says. "It's uncharted territory."

Raising awareness is the first step.

"One of the things I struggle with is that I feel my head was in the sand," says Jody Daitchman, of Buffalo Grove, who never even considered that her son, Alex Laliberte, 20, might be using heroin until she discovered him dead in their home.

Having been initiated into the sad fraternity of suburban parents who have lost children to heroin, Daitchman says the Roosevelt study "doesn't surprise me at all." Her website tries to raise awareness and funds for prevention and treatment.

"I think too many people are oblivious to it," Daitchman says. "But I was one of those people."

While heroin use is skyrocketing, Schmitz and Kane-Willis say Illinois could do several things to improve the situation, starting with more thorough drug education. Kane-Willis says that when an adult or teacher says, "Don't do this. It's bad," kids think, "'Well, bad like how? Bad like pot is bad?'"

"I don't think there's a differentiation between substances," Kane-Willis says.

The Roosevelt University study concludes that medically assisted treatment programs, which substitute other drugs for heroin, remain underfunded in Illinois. The study also calls for an increased use of naloxone, a drug credited with saving nearly 2,000 people who overdosed; syringe-exchange programs that help users avoid HIV and other blood-borne diseases; and legal protection for people who call 911 to report an overdose.

Acknowledging that their research showing a rise in heroin use in Illinois is "scary," Schmitz and Kane-Willis point out that their research was limited to arrest records, coroner reports, government health programs and other public data.

"The picture could actually be much worse," Schmitz says, explaining that heroin victims treated in private facilities or in other states don't get counted in Illinois.

"To me," Kane-Willis says, "especially among white, middle class or upper middle class, I think the numbers of heroin users is much larger."