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Surging heroin deaths in Illinois draw alarm, ire

Published: Saturday, April 5, 2014 11:12 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, April 5, 2014 11:19 p.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
A heroin pouch lays next to a sidewalk on Homan Avenue in Chicago. Some states, including Illinois, are reporting a rise in heroin use as many addicts shift from more costly and harder-to-get prescription opiates to this cheaper alternative. In Cook County, the state's most-populous county, the medical examiner's office says heroin in 2013 accounted in for 224 deaths, or 60 percent of the 377 total opiate-linked deaths.

ST. LOUIS – Some states, including Illinois, are reporting a rise in heroin use as many addicts shift from more costly and harder-to-get prescription opiates to this cheaper alternative. A look at what’s happening in Illinois:

THE PROBLEM: Coroners from the Chicago area to St. Louis’ Illinois suburbs say heroin overdose deaths have spiked in recent years, given the relative cheapness, purity, potency and broad availability of the drug.

“We have to firmly get out the message that heroin is a highly addictive drug that will kill you,” said Richard Jorgensen, coroner of suburban Chicago’s DuPage County, where the number of heroin deaths has nearly doubled since 2011.

THE NUMBERS: Citing death certificates, the Illinois Department of Public Health says the number of accidental heroin-related deaths statewide climbed from 95 in 2008 to 140 by 2010, the last year such totals are available. In Cook County, the state’s most populous, the medical examiner’s office says heroin in 2013 accounted for 224 deaths, or 60 percent of the 377 total opiate-linked deaths. Figures for other years are not available because the county only began testing specifically for heroin last year.

In DuPage County, heroin deaths that numbered in the 20s each year from 2007 through 2011 spiked to 43 in 2012 and 46 last year, said Jorgensen, a surgeon who took office in December 2012.

Jorgensen partly blames his turf’s location: The county is a short drive to Chicago along the Eisenhower Expressway, what locals have come to call “The Heroin Highway.”

“It’s easy for suburban kids to get on the Eisenhower and within a half hour have available, cheap heroin,” Jorgensen said.

In Madison County, near St. Louis, coroner Steve Nonn said last year’s 23 heroin deaths were more than two-thirds higher than the seven in 2009. “And we’re not even talking about the number of people addicted to this drug,” Nonn said.

SOLUTIONS: The Illinois House is forming a task force expected to hold four Chicago-area public hearings this spring about heroin.

DuPage County is funneling $100,000 into heroin-prevention efforts.

In Madison County and throughout the St. Louis area, law enforcement have tried enticing heroin users into treatment and expunging their records if they stay clean. The region’s federal, county and local authorities have hosted town hall meetings at high school gyms, warning about heroin’s addictiveness and deadliness.

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