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Article updated: 9/5/2012 8:17 AM

Heroin use rises among young, whites in suburbs

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Heroin use is rising sharply among young people in the suburbs, and the Chicago metropolitan area has more heroin-related emergency room visits than New York, Boston or Detroit, according to a study released Thursday by Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

The study, "Heroin Usage in National and Illinois Perspectives," found heroin overdose deaths doubled in Lake and Will counties in the past four years.

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Candlelight vigil in Schaumburg

When: 6:30 tonight
Where: Roosevelt University front rotunda, 1400 Roosevelt Blvd., Schaumburg
What: The public is invited to a candlelight vigil for International Overdose Awareness Day in memory of anyone who has lost a loved one to an overdose from any type of drug. The event also will include presentations and advocacy on lifesaving solutions, and Saving Lives Courage Awards to local people and groups.
Info: files.xlmc.net/vigil

Heroin-related treatment in Illinois emergency rooms jumped 27 percent for people age 20 or younger between 2008 and 2010, the study reported.

Even though the suburban heroin epidemic has received widespread media attention in recent years, usage continues to increase and expand to new demographic groups, says study co-author and consortium director Kathie Kane-Willis.

"This trend is going to be long and pronounced, and we're still in the midst of it," she said. "When we first did this study (on heroin) in 2004, we thought, well, this is increasing. But it's continuing to grow, and the rate it's continuing to grow surprises me."

The trend locally mirrors what is happening around the country, consortium members say. Nationally, the average age of first-time heroin users dropped from 25.5 to 21.3 years old between 2009 and 2010, according to the study. It also found cocaine and methamphetamine use on the decline, while heroin and opiate pain killers are rising.

In Illinois, the consortium identified two distinct groups of heroin users -- white people in their teens and 20s, and African-Americans over age 30.

White people entering public treatment facilities for heroin rose 6 percent, while the number of blacks entering treatment dropped by 8 percent, the study found. While heroin use among blacks is trending down, blacks make up 60 percent of those seeking help from public treatment facilities in Illinois, the study reported.

Study co-author Stephanie J. Schmitz, of Schaumburg, said part of what's fueling the heroin problem in the suburbs is that the dangerous drug is easy to get, cheap and can be snorted or smoked instead of injected.

"When you have young users, you have novice users. There's less knowledge about heroin. And you run the risk of overdose being a possibility," Schmitz said. "The $10,000 question is why. What leads to heroin use, of all things?"

The study proposes solutions, and topping the list is education -- of parents, students, police, medical works and others. Consortium members say heroin and opiate pain pills often fall into the "other drugs" category during school programs, but they deserve more attention.

"Everybody needs to know a little bit more about drug use. They're not aware of what drugs do or how they're used, and they're each very different," Kane-Willis said. "We haven't been particularly honest in our approaches. Sometimes there's a honeymoon period that occurs with drug use. Then they try to stop, and they can't."

The study also recommends more training on how to use the prescription drug Naxolone (also known as Narcan), an overdose prevention drug, and spreading the word about the new Emergency Medical Services Act, which went into effect this summer and grants people immunity from prosecution for possessing small amounts of drugs if they call 911 to report an overdose.

To kick off that education effort, Roosevelt University is hosting a candlelight vigil and advocacy rally at 6:30 tonight on its Schaumburg campus.

Other proposed solutions in the study included creating more opportunities for safe disposal of unused prescription opiates, increased funding for treatment programs, which have suffered from government cutbacks in recent years, and making more syringes and syringe exchange programs available.

To view the full report, go to www.roosevelt.edu/~/media/files/pdfs/CAS/ICDP/HeroinUse-Aug2012. ashx

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