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Lyons: Forum seeks solutions to local heroin trend

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“I have made the big decision. I’m gonna try to nullify my life” – “Heroin,” Velvet Underground.

It’s a devastating song of the 1970s, when the often lethal lifestyle of the junkie was sometimes romanticized and glorified, possibly because it seemed so distant.

In 2013, heroin addicts aren’t just represented as a subculture. And it’s no longer a New York City thing – it’s a suburban thing. Here in McHenry County, people – young people – are unromantically and ingloriously dying from heroin overdoses.

Heroin in 2013 is still what it was when Lou Reed played CBGB – a deadly menace. Between 2009 and 2012, there were 52 heroin-related overdose deaths in the county, according to McHenry County Coroner statistics.

According to data collected by Rosecrance, a major county drug treatment provider, more patients were admitted for heroin addiction than any other drug including alcohol over the past year – 142 patients tested positive for heroin during screening.

The Heroin Education/Enforcement Action Task Force has conducted a few dozen heroin investigations over the past year and confiscated more than 75 grams of heroin in the process.

This week, I spoke with Rick Atwater, a local drug treatment provider and addiction columnist for decades, about the trend, and his points make a lot of sense.

Atwater, director of Northwest Community Counseling, said heroin has replaced cocaine as the hard drug of choice and explained why he believes that’s the case: “Heroin is more plentiful, and it’s cheaper.”

First, young people get introduced to opiates from places as innocent as their parents’ medicine cabinet – Vicodin, Oxycontin. Then they obtain those drugs illicitly.

The next step is heroin, which in the ’70s and ’80s was administered intravenously, but advancements in the production allow the drug to be snorted.

“You don’t have to sneak out to the backroom and get out the works, tie off and shoot up,” Atwater said.

But once a user gets hooked, shooting heroin becomes the more economical and more lethal choice.

From a law enforcement perspective, police used to find only small user quantities here. Addicts had to drive to Chicago or Rockford, but that trend seems to be shifting, and dealer-sized quantities are found more often.

What’s troubling Atwater and others is that heroin has become a bigger issue among 18- to 24-year-olds. And the subculture junkie character is more mythology than reality.

“Most people have a stereotypical idea of what a heroin addict looks like, which unfortunately looks just like you and me,” Atwater said.

But there is hope and there are solutions, which is what the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition has been working toward for about a decade.

They’re hosting a public forum, “Heroin – A Community’s Response to A Community’s Crisis,” from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in the McHenry County College Auditorium to provide information for anyone who has interest in the subject.

Treatment providers, police, court personnel, educators, recovering addicts and other experts will be on hand to provide information and hopefully take questions. I’ll be helping moderate the event.

Hope to see you there. And we’ll provide coverage of the event if you’re interested but unable to attend.

Heroin is a problem here, but like many social problems, there are solutions, there is treatment and there is recovery. But as a community, we’ll need to be able to provide tools and support for people to reverse that decision to “nullify” their lives.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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