Club drugs and snortable, high-grade heroin have taken hold of a segment of the suburbs' teen and young adult population, creating a hidden subculture filled with more addicts, more traumatized families and more deaths than they did just three years ago, experts say.
More young people are trying the drugs, experts say, believing they are relatively harmless.
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Heroin and club drugs have contributed to at least 13 suburban deaths in just the past two years. Club drugs caused or contributed to the deaths of four Northwest and West suburban teens. And heroin overdoses are the suspected cause or a contributing factor in at least eight deaths in the suburbs in the past two years. One young adult had both club drugs and heroin in his system when he died.
Plano, Texas, attracted national attention when heroin overdoses killed 19 young adults there between 1996 and 1998.
But the alarm here is not widespread despite the tragic toll quietly mounting.
"It's everywhere," Roselle Deputy Police Chief Pat Dempsey said of heroin. "We've had too many kids die."
Illicit use of heroin and club drugs is the suburbs' secret scourge.
Club drugs, so called because they are sold widely in nightclubs, began surfacing here in 1997 most often in the form of pills. Many teens and young adults think pills are safe because they've taken them all their lives to feel better. Heroin, likewise, seems less dangerous because it no longer requires the use of a needle.
Many suburban police officers say cocaine remains the most widely abused drug they encounter. But while those abusing club drugs and heroin remain a minority, these particular drugs are so powerful and volatile that drug researchers, treatment providers and some law enforcement authorities say they should be a cause of more widespread concern among suburban residents.
"What used to be mainlined is now mainstreamed," said Carol Falkowski, one of 20 drug abuse researchers nationwide who analyze information for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "It's part of this whole nonchalance about drugs."
Heroin and club drug abuse causes problems beyond the boundaries of its users' homes. Drug abusers endanger others as they drive under the influence. Heroin addiction is so potent that it pushes many young users to commit retail theft, robbery and burglary to get cash for dope. Some police officials attribute as much as 80 percent of property crimes to drug users.
Several factors have converged to keep the suburban drug scourge hidden even as heroin and club drug use and lethal abuse rise.
- Small, $25-$40 pills marked with cultural icons such as the Nike logo and smiley faces easily can be mistaken by parents for an average Advil. Clear, club drug liquids mixed with water, juice or sport drinks also are difficult to detect.
- These drugs can be consumed quickly and do not produce the tell-tale odors that accompany alcohol and marijuana consumption. But they can be deadly. Several teens died either from taking pills much more potent than what they thought they were buying or from taking too much of the drug they wanted.
- The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently called the rise in heroin purity and drop in price in the past two decades "unprecedented." That remarkable rise in purity now makes heroin easier to consume because needles no longer are needed.
- Suburban teens and young adults hop in their SUVs, travel the Eisenhower Expressway to Chicago's West Side, quickly buy a $10 bag of heroin available from dealers on practically every other side street, and often snort or swallow the drug before they even begin a return trip home that has the potential to endanger dozens of innocent lives.
Those facts make fighting the illegal heroin and club drug trade difficult, to say the least, for parents, police and prosecutors. Experts say the drug usage is so easy to conceal many parents and police officers may be unaware of the full extent of the problem.
"Most parents are absolutely clueless," said Falkowski. "They think of being at college with a little pot around."
Many parents who are aware of drug abuse by their children also are reluctant to seek help or publicize their predicament.
Some parents struggle to deal with drug problems in the privacy of their homes; some fear what their friends, neighbors and co-workers might think.
"Don't put his name in the paper," asked one parent grieving the heroin-overdose-related death of her son in western DuPage County. Another suburban woman said, "You can't use my name. I'm known in the community. My daughter's known," even as she pleaded for more media attention on Ecstasy and other club drugs - something she called "a plague on our youth."
For sale near you
Club drugs can be purchased throughout the suburbs, frequently flowing in after being smuggled from European sources. They are taken by teens in small groups, in clubs and at all-night dance parties called raves.
"The flavor of the day in the suburbs is the raves," said Thomas Donahue, executive director of the Chicago office of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal agency that helps fund joint drug investigations among different police agencies.
"Heroin has stayed under the radar," Donahue said. Some suburban police departments don't make many heroin arrests, he said, because users go to the city to buy it and frequently ingest it there.
Suburban police officers may not make many heroin arrests compared to other drugs, but they are making enough to indicate growing use and abuse.
An analysis of Daily Herald articles found 93 people charged with heroin possession and 106 people charged with club drug possession during 2000 and most of 2001. A majority of those charged were in their 20s.
In one two-week period in mid-October, Rolling Meadows police found two bags containing 59.5 grams of suspected heroin and Schaumburg police announced the arrest of 22 people for dealing and possession of club drugs.
Quantifying the extent of heroin and club drug use remains a vexing problem because so many users so easily hide their habit and most police departments and even some rehab centers do not differentiate between different types of illegal drugs when they keep records.
That said, emergency room visits in which the most popular club drug, Ecstasy, was mentioned increased 62 percent from 1999 to 2000 in the Chicago metro area, according to a federal tracking survey of 21 communities. Ecstasy, the most common street term for methylenedioxymethamphetamine, is a hallucinogenic stimulant that heightens users' senses and energy. Early studies of it have found it may cause permanent brain damage.
The number of instances of heroin being present in exams by Chicago metro medical examiners more than doubled from 1996 to 1999, according to the survey. There were 457 instances of heroin reported in 1999.
Federal officials conservatively estimate there are 977,000 hard-core heroin addicts in the United States.
Nationally, more than 75,000 high school seniors, about equal to Schaumburg's population, reported ever having used heroin in 2000 as part of the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study. The percentage of those reporting use rose four-tenths of a percent from 1999.
More than 325,000 high school seniors reported last year ever having tried Ecstasy. The percentage of seniors who said they ever had tried the drug nearly doubled from the previous year.
Another 1.9 percent of seniors reported using GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate, a depressant, and 2.5 percent reported using ketamine, known as "Special K" or "K," an anesthetic used in veterinary medicine.
Supply and demand
Throughout the West and Northwest suburbs drug counselors also report rising numbers of younger clients seeking treatment.
Many suburban police, hospital, and other officials who responded to a Daily Herald survey indicated they expect to handle more or at least as many incidents involving heroin and club drugs this year as they did last year.
For instance, DuPage County Coroner Richard Ballinger estimated his office already had handled about twice as many deaths involving heroin during the first nine months of this year than it did last year. Likewise, the DuPage County crime lab had handled almost as many tests for heroin in the first nine months of this year as it did for all of last year, according to statistics provided by the sheriff's office.
Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates and emergency department officials at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights also reported being on pace to exceed last year's numbers of those seeking help for heroin and club drug use.
A majority of police agencies who responded to the survey said cocaine remains the drug they encounter most. But more than one-third said heroin was the established drug that had spiked the most in 2000 and 2001. Asked which of the group of newer stimulant and depressant club drugs they recently had encountered most, two-thirds of police, hospitals, coroners and school officials said Ecstasy.
Another indicator of rising hard drug use is that nearly 1,000 people 17 and older currently are taking methadone at five clinics scattered throughout the suburbs. Methadone is an opiate which blocks the high heroin produces when taken at proper dosages. The overwhelming majority of methadone patients are seeking help for a heroin addiction, clinic directors said.
Many more are not in treatment or likely are seeking help that does not make use of another drug at the scores of other drug rehabilitation centers scattered throughout the suburbs.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates less than 20 percent of the nation's heroin addicts seek treatment through the use of methadone or another opiate.
Use of heroin and club drugs also has been fueled by the ease in availability.
U.S. Customs Service officials said they seized 2,555 pounds of heroin last fiscal year, a 33 percent increase over the previous year. Ecstasy and other club drugs are flooding the suburbs, despite several large busts in recent years by police. Federal customs agents seized more than 9 million tablets in 2000, a 2,150-percent hike from the 400,000 tablets confiscated in 1997.
Just last May at O'Hare International Airport, customs inspectors found 118,000 Ecstasy pills inside wrapped birthday presents in the luggage of a 21-year-old unemployed actress traveling here from Brussels, Belgium. Those pills alone had a street value of $3.5 million, customs officials said.
No one's figured out how to stop the demand for drugs anywhere.
Tom Carnevale, a 21-year-old Lisle resident, hopes to do what he can to dampen that demand. He speaks about the dangers of drugs with the authority of an addict.
Carnevale is battling heroin dependency. He knows from first-hand experience suburban teens and young adults from upper middle class backgrounds are the ideal target market for heroin and club drug sellers.
"If we're not awake to it and try to prevent it," Carnevale said, "it's just going to get worse and more kids are going to die. ...We cannot turn our heads away any longer."