Kirk gains insight in fight against heroin from former users in Addison
"Tell me what you think I don't know," U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says as he sits down with a group of former heroin users at the Serenity House recovery center in Addison.
The broad question draws crickets, so he has to work the crowd, get the five former heroin users at the table comfortable with his style of questioning and listening, gain some degree of trust in only a few minutes.
"I am here because I don't know what I don't know about your world," he tells the former users.
His assumption is kids in the suburbs are too smart for heroin. Kirk's assumption is wrong, and he knows it. He launches into his questions.
His style is direct and to the point, his listening sincere and attentive. He's nodding and responding and snacking on the same cookies and coffee as the former heroin users. His staff members are taking copious notes.
Serenity House residents start opening up.
One says she started smoking marijuana in eighth grade, drinking in high school and later doing heroin because she couldn't deal with the pain of her mother's death.
Kirk puts on a brace to support his stroke-weakened left side, walks around the table and hugs her.
Then the questioning continues.
He asks the five former addicts about their run-ins with the law, the financial cost of their drug habit at its peak, how much it costs for them to live at Serenity House, a sober living environment.
This is Kirk at work. He's researching a problem he admits he knows little about by talking directly with those it affects, looking for loopholes he can close or laws he can create to be part of the solution.
Details are important. When one former addict says he was taking pills before his addiction moved to heroin, Kirk asks him to write down which kind. That way, he can know which medications should be included in any future push for tighter monitoring.
Kirk's staffers' notebooks fill with details, struggles, stories. And then he cuts off the conversation. The time of a U.S. senator is always in high demand. He thanks the former heroin users for their time and openness.
"Part of our job as legislators," he says, "is not just to ignore problems until they go away."
It's to do something.
After the meeting with former heroin users and the parents of two heroin overdose victims from the suburbs, Kirk and his staffers go to work.
They're focused on preventing overdose deaths, since Kirk now knows that those who are trying to stop using heroin are among the most likely to overdose and die.
"I learned from Serenity House that often when an addict is trying to kick the habit, the normal doses that they've always used can be lethal," Kirk said. "That's why overdoses are so common."
Kirk is working to stop overdoses by increasing the availability of Narcan, an overdose reversal drug also known as Naloxone. This work takes several forms.
On Monday, Dec. 29, he's pulling together a heroin task force that includes, among others, the coroners from Cook, DuPage and Lake counties. He's hoping to increase education about the overdose antidote, which can be injected or given as a nasal spray -- although the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the spray version. He's looking for money to help make the drug available to police officers and sheriff's deputies in Cook County. And he's counting on those who already carry Narcan, such as many officers in DuPage and Lake counties, to keep careful count of how many lives they save.
Motivated by the stories of former users he met at Serenity House, Kirk sent a letter to the FDA requesting speedy approval of the nasal spray version of Narcan.
Police chiefs have said many officers feel more comfortable using the spray than the injectable form, but Kirk said the typical FDA approval process for a "new use" of an existing drug could take eight to 10 years.
Some police departments already are distributing nasal Narcan to officers. But having full FDA approval could help smooth relations with police unions, which Kirk said might have liability concerns about administering a drug that hasn't been fully vetted.
Kirk sent his letter to the FDA Oct. 6, and he hasn't heard back. But he's calling on President Barack Obama to green-light the approval and make the most user-friendly version of the lifesaving drug more easily available.
"This is an ideal issue for an African-American president from Chicagoland to tell the FDA to hurry up on," Kirk said. "We could save a lot of lives."
• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries