Heroin's grip on young people in suburbs seems as tight as ever

Updated 4/4/2014 5:30 PM
Editor's note: This story originally ran on Jan. 15, 2003 as part of the Daily Herald's "Hidden Scourge: Heroin in the Suburbs" series.

Editor's note:

The Daily Herald concludes its more than yearlong look at drug abuse by teens and young adults with reports today and Thursday.


After an initial four-part series in December 2001, the newspaper's editorial staff members committed to telling the life stories of those who died in the past year.

The newspaper published more than 40 stories about suburban drug trends, problems and personal struggles with addiction last year. It also sponsored a public forum exploring the drug problem that drew about 700 concerned area residents. Newspaper employees also participated in other such forums.

The Daily Herald will continue to write about drug abuse from time to time. A collection of "Hidden Scourge" stories and helpful resources will remain available by clicking on the series logo at dailyherald.com

A year after a special report revealed a "hidden scourge" of heroin and club drugs was killing young people at an alarming rate, a follow-up study by the Daily Herald shows the deaths continued unabated in 2002.

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At least 30 Northwest and West suburban teens and young adults died last year from drug overdoses, the newspaper found.

More teens and young adults seem to be succumbing to the dangers of inexpensive, high-grade heroin. A majority of those who died were reported to have ingested heroin and overdosed on it. Heroin's purity is so high now that it can be snorted, misleading some users to think it less lethal.

Some of those who died had a toxic mix of heroin, other opiates, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol or other drugs in their systems when they died, according to coroners' autopsies, police reports and interviews with family and friends. One 17-year-old Arlington Heights boy died after inhaling lighter fluid.

A thorough tracking and tracing of teen and young adult deaths by the newspaper throughout 2002 confirmed the trend it first revealed in late December 2001.

Use on the upswing

Then, a conservative and limited search through two years' worth of records and newspaper accounts uncovered 13 drug-related deaths. Four involved club drugs, eight involved heroin and one young adult had both club drugs and heroin in his system when he died. Throughout 2002, reporters and editors regularly checked coroners' reports and obituaries in an ongoing effort to better quantify the extent of the problem.


In just that one year, at least 30 deaths were confirmed to have been caused, in whole or part, by drugs or other illegal substances. Toxicology reports still were not complete in another handful of deaths in which drug abuse is suspected.

"It's kind of scary," DuPage County Coroner Richard Ballinger said when told about the number of drug-related deaths last year. "Are we making any inroads? You wonder sometimes. It's difficult, but you can't stop trying."

No deaths caused in whole or part by club drugs were uncovered in 2002. Still, they remain available in the suburbs.

Early in 2002, two Schaumburg residents were rushed from a now-shuttered Des Plaines club to a hospital after they overdosed on the depressant GHB, or gamma hydroxybutyrate. Just last week, at an Elgin club called the Mission, a 20-year-old Palos Heights man overdosed on GHB.

Club drugs like GHB and the stimulant/hallucinogen Ecstasy have received widespread national attention in the past year. They should remain a cause for concern, one national expert said.

"Club drugs are still a very real threat, though they're not in the headlines as much," said Carol Falkowski, one of 20 drug abuse researchers nationwide who analyze information for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Young victims

The yearlong hidden scourge examination found seven of those who died were in their teens. One West Chicago man was 30. The rest were in their 20s. The study tracked only those who were 30 or younger. Four of those who died were female; the rest were male. Just under half of them lived in DuPage County.

DuPage's Ballinger said he believes the study may have missed some deaths handled by the much larger Cook County medical examiner's office. Intake logs from the Cook coroner's office were checked daily.

Phil Britton, the dean of students at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School, pointed to simple economics as one reason.

"It doesn't surprise me that DuPage County has a high rate of death due to drugs. There's a lot of money here. Students have the disposable income and they spend it. Drug dealers are businessmen," Britton said.

More suburban teens and young adults are turning to heroin for a high because it is inexpensive and no longer needs to be injected, experts said. Heroin, club drugs and cocaine often are difficult to detect. They can be consumed quickly without the odor that comes with alcohol or marijuana consumption.

Many users drive to Chicago's West Side or to Aurora to buy high-purity heroin for $10 for a single-dose bag. Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine and Chicago police officials announced a crackdown last summer in which they planned to start seizing vehicles used by drug buyers.

Chicago police and prosecutors in the narcotics unit either could not be reached or did not return calls last week to check on that effort. But the street corner drug dealers who sell "blow," the current slang for heroin, and "rocks," the slang for crack cocaine, still were readily available on a recent trip to the West Side.

Researcher Falkowski said the number of heroin-related deaths in the Chicago suburbs underscores how dangerous that highly addictive drug is. In addition to her federal government drug research, Falkowski also works as research communications director at Hazelden Foundation, an international addiction treatment provider in Minnesota.

"Even experienced addicts can overdose," she said. "You can't tell how strong it is by looking at it."

Plano, Texas, garnered national media attention when heroin overdoses killed 19 young adults from 1996 to 1998. The 30 deaths in one year from heroin and other hard-core drugs far surpasses the Plano crisis.

The national Monitoring the Future survey of 44,000 high school students released late last month suggested Ecstasy use declined for the first time and heroin use remained steady for 2002, but one treatment expert said heroin use clearly is on the rise in Chicago's suburbs.

Suzanne Walker, adolescent program director at Rush Behavioral Health Lake Forest Hospital, said she is certain from her own intake numbers and from speaking with colleagues that heroin usage in the suburbs has "picked up."

Walker said the increase is in part driven by the fact that heroin is cheaper to buy than club drugs or pot.

Parents and other officials still struggle to find solutions to the self-destructive drug abuse problem.

"You can pass all the laws you want and it won't make a bit of difference," Ballinger said. "I don't have the answer but all we can do to get the message out and reduce the fatalities is through education. The first thing you do with young kids is break down this notion that it's not going to happen to me."

Losses hit hard

Time and time again, members of suburban families learned last year that it had happened to them. They were left bereft by the sudden death of a teen or young adult. Many said they were too ashamed or overcome with grief to share the stories and pictures of their loved ones whose lives' were lost.

But others were willing to reach out. A support group for families struggling with addiction began in Palatine last summer. Another group for recovering addicts done with treatment but struggling to remain clean was formed at Rush Behavioral Health Lake Forest Hospital, Walker said.

A drug court in Kane County that focuses on intensive rehabilitation graduated its first class. A drug court in DuPage County was reinstated.

A spike in heroin use and crime first was uncovered in west suburban St. Charles several years ago. St. Charles police investigated nine drug-related overdoses in 2001, two of which were fatal. Officers created a list of 85 known heroin addicts in their community and surrounding towns who often were committing thefts and burglaries to fuel their drug buys.

Last year, police Chief Don Shaw instituted most of a 10-step plan to try to fight the drug scourge. It included assigning two officers to focus on drug cases, freshman health class presentations on heroin and club drugs, drug-sniffing dog patrols in the high school and drug education talks with parents of fifth graders.

"We still know kids are using drugs," Shaw said. "The heroin is still out there. We're starting to displace out of town some of those issues, some of those offenders. It may sound selfish - it's protecting our community, which is my job."

Shaw and several other experts, though, noted parents remain the first line of defense against drug abuse.

"What it's all about are families," he said.

Walker said parents must stop ignoring early drug experimentation. "Parents turn the other eye with marijuana use and then it turns to heroin and it's too late," she said.

Ballinger, the DuPage coroner, said parents must try harder to spend more time with their children and to make sure their time outside of school is filled with positive activity.

"Drugs are more accessible and their effects more unpredictable than ever before," Falkowski said. "Having a talk with your kids isn't a one-time event. It's a process and parents should trust their instincts if they believe drugs or alcohol are involved and quickly get their kids to a professional."

- Coming Thursday: A look at some success stories in the battle against the "hidden scourge."

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