How suburban politicians fight heroin with forums, funding
Politicians have plenty to do in the fight against heroin.
They're looking to legislate against over-prescription of pain pills, trying to regulate the supply of medications so they don't end up on the black market, working to increase access to treatment for those who fall under heroin's spell.
Today in Part 7Heroin has taken hold in the suburbs and turning a blind eye to it isn't acceptable anymore. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald examines those the problem affects and those who are fighting it. Today we take a look through the eyes of U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who admittedly knew little about the heroin problem before meeting with former users but now has created a task force and is pushing for greater availability of an overdose reversal drug.
Elected officials at the municipal, state and federal levels are funding education and research, giving grants to nonprofit groups and hosting forums to find new solutions.
Most of all, they're using their platform as representatives of the people hurt by heroin to shed light on the issue, especially on the hundreds of overdose deaths that have struck the suburbs during the past few years.
"These are normal, typical suburban kids from good, typical suburban families, and this is happening to them," 27th District state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine said. "It's such a devastating outcome in so many cases. I felt like I had at least a little bit of a megaphone to highlight this and wanted to use it."
Here's a look at how five area political figures are taking steps to address the heroin epidemic.
Judith Brodhead, Naperville council
When a group called the Community Alliance for Prevention began meeting late last year in Naperville, Brodhead was the city council member asked to join.
"The mission is to strengthen the community in order to reduce youth drug use," Brodhead said about the group that focuses its efforts in school districts Naperville Unit 203 and Indian Prairie Unit 204.
The group is a clearinghouse for ideas about substance abuse prevention, allowing counselors and treatment professionals to meet with high school students, parents and police, school board members and other community leaders all at once. Brodhead is there to see how the city can use any knowledge she gains to advance the heroin abuse and suicide prevention programs it has funded with $209,000 in grants during the past two years.
One thing she's learned from both professionals and students: so-called "scared straight" public service announcements, such as the "this is your brain on drugs," ads don't work. As she searches for ways to reach young adults who have already graduated from high school with a heroin prevention message, Brodhead said it's been valuable to gather ideas from the alliance for prevention.
"It provides a really large number of perspectives that are pretty original," Brodhead said. "It's been a revelation to me to hear what they have to say because you hear from both professionals and people who are in high school themselves, and they often upend the conventional wisdom about substance use prevention."
Matt Murphy, state Senate
Murphy told his kids to stay away from heroin in the most "shocking" way he could.
"I told my teenage daughters I heard about a cheerleader in Naperville turning tricks on the West Side because she got hooked," Murphy told his children, wanting to hammer home that the drug can lead to dangerous paths that never should be taken.
Murphy, of Palatine, sits on the state legislature's heroin task force and a criminal justice reform group. Both panels, he said, are looking for ways to "creatively approach" the heroin problem.
Maybe the state should pursue mandated drug treatment instead of jail for people caught with illegal substances. Maybe the state will follow the federal government's lead and expand opportunities for prescription take-backs to remove the temptation to try addictive pain pills.
And certainly, Murphy says, state leaders need to continue pushing for education about "the threat this poses" because today's heroin is purer and cheaper than ever.
"It kind of gets lumped in with everything else that maybe you'll try," Murphy said.
But it shouldn't. Because heroin is much more dangerous than other drugs and more addictive, too. Medical experts say it floods the brain with opiates that create a soothing and sleepy high with no pain and no worries. But it's not worth the risk -- that's what Murphy wants to tell his children and all young people.
"There's a lot of mistakes you can overcome in your life," he said. "Heroin, far too often, isn't going to be one of them."
Sam Yingling, state House
It was 2012 and Yingling was a newly elected state representative for the 62nd District when Chelsea Laliberte gave him a project he never would have predicted.
"She really brought my attention to what an epidemic heroin has become," Yingling said about Laliberte, a Buffalo Grove native who lost her brother to a heroin overdose in 2008 and founded a drug education nonprofit group called Live4Lali. "I was shocked to learn that we had a heroin problem. It was a very rude awakening for me."
Fighting heroin soon became a priority for Yingling, of Grayslake, who introduced legislation to create a heroin task force among both parties and chambers in the state legislature. He then became the group's chairman, presiding over meetings on how best to overcome the problem of young people getting hooked on heroin.
"What is really fascinating is it doesn't matter where you are at in the state, you hear the exact same stories" about the destructive power of heroin, Yingling said.
Some of the same solutions kept coming up, too. Among them are providing better prevention education, enlisting teens to warn peers, making it easier for residents to dispose of prescriptions, and providing more resources to drug courts that direct offenders to treatment instead of jail.
Randy Hultgren, U.S. Congress
Since Hultgren hosted a forum in March to develop a community action plan, authorities in his district that stretches from Wisconsin nearly to I-80 have begun to implement the plan. He said the community is seeing positive results from the gathering that addressed heroin in terms of prevention, treatment, efforts to stop overdoses and recovery.
A program to provide the heroin overdose reversal drug Narcan to police officers in DeKalb County, including the Northern Illinois University police department, and a drug take-back event this September in Mundelein both have their roots in Hultgren's community action plan.
"Much needs to happen to treat an addiction," Hultgren said. "We're looking for additional funding for treatment and law enforcement, and also to go after criminals that are bringing drugs into our communities. That's certainly a big part of our effort that needs to happen on a national level."
Other suggestions in Hultgren's plan include:
• Partner with Realtors to ensure prescriptions are inaccessible during showings.
• Label addictive pain medications with a color-coded warning.
• Improve transportation to drug treatment.
• Change common terminology from "addiction" to "disease."
• Develop a tool kit for recovering addicts.
• Introduce legislation to protect people administering overdose reversal drugs from liability.
Bill Foster, U.S. Congress
Foster looks at the heroin problem the same way as he approaches all issues: through the lens of science.
"I'm trying to understand what works and what doesn't from a scientific point of view," said Foster, a former physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.
What's working, he says, is medical research leading to drugs that could target the neurological behaviors of addiction. Some of that research is going on in the suburbs at Argonne National Laboratory, he said.
"When you understand the biochemical pathways that take over an addict's brain, then you have a real shot at having a drug with minimal side effects," Foster said.
Foster also introduced two pieces of legislation and is supporting another to fight heroin. These bills -- the Stop Overdoses Stat Act, the Opioid Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, and the Expanding Opportunities for Recovery Act -- could be considered during the House's new term next year, he said.
Foster told attendees at a forum in December that the bills could create a grant program to expand the use of the overdose reversal drug Narcan, authorize a study of whether the drug should be available over the counter, require statistics to be kept on drug overdoses, analyze the prescribing behavior of doctors, encourage drug take-back events and provide funding for those without sufficient insurance to afford treatment "to give them at least one good shot at getting rid of their addiction."
"People are really starting to understand that drug addiction should be seen as a medical condition and not a moral failure," Foster said. "A medical condition can and should be cured, and it's something we can do our best to get rid of."
• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries