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posted: 9/29/2014 5:30 AM

Increased purity, decreasing costs driving heroin use

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Purity up. Cost down.

Experts say it's a formula that has contributed to the rising number of heroin addicts and deaths in the suburbs and nationwide.

It also provides some explanation for why heroin users today are both young and old.

In the past two years, DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said he's seen people in their 40s, 50s and even 60s die from heroin overdoses.

Jorgensen believes the rise in older users is due to what he says is the nation's new prescription drug abuse epidemic.

"We have a culture in America that uses more narcotic pain medicines than anywhere else in the world. These people are being introduced to opioids -- which are basically synthetic heroin and synthetic morphines, Vicodin, oxycodone, all these drugs -- and unfortunately becoming addicted to them through medical use," he said. "They find out they really like it, it fills a void. Opioids have a very, very interesting way that addicts you. It's a deep and instinctual type of thing."

When doctors determine a patient is healed and say they'll no longer be writing them prescriptions, addicts may look to get the medications elsewhere, Jorgensen said.

But buying pills illegally often takes a lot of effort and money. Instead, some suburban residents may opt to drive 30 minutes to Chicago's West Side, where they can easily pick up a $10 bag of heroin.

"It becomes easier to use heroin than it does to use pills," Jorgensen said, adding that it seems to be the case more so in the Chicago area than other parts of the county.

"That's the strange thing about it," he said. "These people that are older have probably not been heroin addicts since they were 20, they've been heroin addicts since they're 50. It's a very, very strange thing to see, but we've seen a lot more of that in the last years."

The increased use of heroin among young people, meanwhile, is likely due to the new methods to ingest it, along with affordability and a change in attitudes toward heroin.

"Nationally and here, we're seeing a decrease in the amount of cocaine and an increase in the amount of heroin," Jorgensen said. "The drug cartels and the people who are selling this, that's their decision. Heroin is the drug of choice now"

Heroin, he said, used to come in a tar-like form that had to be heated, dissolved and injected. Years ago it was grown primarily in the Middle East, but today it is trafficked mostly from Central and South America.

"Now it comes as a very white, pure powder that can be snorted or smoked," Jorgensen said. "There's a heroin addict we work with a lot that is now two years into sobriety … he says 'I never injected heroin once in my life.' So his entire opioid career and heroin addiction never had to do with needles. That's a totally new thing.

"I've heard from people that if you snort heroin you can't get addicted and if you smoke heroin you can't die of an overdose," he added. "Both of those are wrong."

• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries

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