From heroin addiction to painkiller dependency, deaths from illegal drug use is an issue in McHenry County.
As investigators probe whether drugs were involved in the recent death of a 17-year-old Crystal Lake South High School student, the tragedy has put the spotlight on a growing problem that has local authorities and other officials rethinking policies and strategies.
There were 122 drug overdose deaths in the county from 2009 to 2012, according to the McHenry County Coroner’s Office. Of those, 52 involved heroin, a drug that can cause a surge of euphoria and clouded thinking followed by alternately wakeful and drowsy states, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Drug overdose deaths in McHenry County during the past four years peaked in 2009, when there were 38 total, 15 of which involved heroin. Last year, 16 of the 31 overdose deaths involved heroin.
Nationally, drug overdose deaths increased for the 11th consecutive year in 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 38,329 deaths in 2010, up from 37,004 in 2009. The majority of those deaths involved addictive painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
“There’s no ‘typical’ person, ethnicity or social class affected by this,” McHenry County Undersheriff Andrew Zinke said. “These illegal drugs are highly addictive and affect everyone in all walks of life. They ruin families.”
Crime often related to drug use
Historically, drug users on the east side of McHenry County travel to suburban Cook County, Chicago and the Waukegan area to buy illegal substances, Zinke said, while those on the county’s west side typically travel to Rockford.
“Generally, when we make drug arrests, they are the users or the middlemen who are picking the stuff up and bringing it back to their friends,” he said. “It doesn’t stop the larger issue at hand.”
Many of the property crimes in the county relate to drug use because users steal items to feed their habit, Zinke said.
“It’s a vicious circle that never ends,” he said. “They steal from their family, friends and strangers.”
The McHenry County Sheriff’s Office targets illegal drug activity by collaborating with other local law enforcement agencies. Deputies rely heavily on informants and community tips, and officers work undercover and overtly.
High-crime areas are patrolled more often than others, while repeat offenders continue to be tracked.
“Drug use patterns itself against what the drug of choice is at that particular time,” Zinke said. “It used to be cocaine and LSD, and those are still out there, but heroin and ecstasy are more prevalent now.”
Other drug abuses
The county also has seen an uptick in prescription drug abuse, with offenders sometimes stealing prescriptions or drugs to either use or sell.
“There is a significant amount of patients coming in for painkillers,” said Dr. Joseph Keenan, emergency department director for Centegra Health System hospitals in Woodstock and McHenry. “A majority of them have chronic pain syndrome and other problems, but are unable to establish a relationship with a primary care physician to get prescriptions.”
With concerns about abuse and misuse increasing, officials created an emergency department narcotics policy outlining procedures for prescriptions. It includes not refilling a lost, expired or stolen prescription, and diagnosing a frequent visitor to the emergency room with chronic pain syndrome and not issue prescriptions.
“We are trying to take accountability for the problem and be responsible for who we prescribe these potentially harmful drugs to,” Keenan said.
Patients also are referred to a crisis program that offers chemical dependency resources through organizations such as Rosecrance McHenry County, which provides outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment services.
One focus includes an opiate-specific intensive outpatient group that meets four days a week. The group averages about 12 attendees – a combination of people court-ordered to be there, required to attend to maintain a residence or willing participants – each session.
“They have similar stories and pathways to how they got where they are,” said Chris Gleason, director in McHenry County. “And almost all of them say they started with prescription drugs and then ended up on heroin.”
D-155 addressing issue
The most recent Illinois Youth Survey conducted at Crystal Lake District 155 showed that 1 percent of sophomores last year had tried heroin, district spokesman Jeff Puma said, compared to the 27 percent who had tried marijuana.
“Anything over zero is not good, but 1 percent does show a great deal of success,” Puma said. “We want to see every drug at zero, and we are trying to get there.”
The district uses a three-pronged approach for prevention in its four high schools: health class for all sophomores, support services and parental support.
The class covers a variety of topics, with a large portion of time focusing on developing decision-making skills that help students resist drugs.
Support services include school social workers, psychologists and counselors who support students on a daily basis. They help students and parents find outside resources if a situation involving drugs arises.
Events held throughout the year prepare parents for obstacles their children may face in school. The most recent, Parent University, included discussion of the signs and symptoms of drug use.
“We are part of a robust anti-drug team throughout the area,” Puma said. “You have a number of support services in the county and the parents’ role at home. We are there to support parents and students along the way.”
Drug-related deaths are a growing problem in the country.
Chicago had the biggest heroin overdose problem in the country based on heroin-related emergency room admissions, according to a recent report by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. In 2010, Chicago metropolitan hospitals recorded 24,360 admissions involving heroin – well ahead of the second-place city, New York, which recorded 12,226.
The analysis found a 27 percent increase in emergency room admissions of overdose patients under 20, and a 12 percent increase in those 21 to 29.
During a six-year period, overdose deaths also have more than doubled in Lake and Will counties, which prompted the Illinois State Crime Commission to declare heroin use an epidemic.
State Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Round Lake Beach, has introduced legislation to address the state’s heroin problem. The proposal, which passed a House committee last week, would include a legislative task force that would listen to experts about heroin use in young adults, then make recommendations to the General Assembly.
“The state’s heroin problem is one that is completely overlooked,” Yingling said. “With heroin being the highest used drug amongst our youth, this is a huge epidemic that needs to be addressed. This isn’t just Chicago’s problem.”
Recent overdose deaths in McHenry County
2009 - 38 (15 involving heroin)
2010 - 32 (12 involving heroin)
2011 - 21 (9 involving heroin)
2012 - 31 (16 involving heroin)
Source: McHenry County Coroner’s Office