Education, prioritization can reduce local heroin abuse

By Editorial Board

Chicago’s heroin epidemic received nationwide attention after 74 overdoses were reported Sept. 29–Oct. 2. Generally, heroin addiction is seen as a crime problem, but this incident highlights it as a public health problem as well that requires public health solutions.

The overdoses, which were primarily reported on Chicago’s West Side, are being attributed to a batch of heroin cut with the painkiller fentanyl, making the narcotic more potent. A similar incident took place in 2006 when 144 overdoses related to fentanyl-laced heroin occurred in Chicago between April 13–27, according to a May 5, 2006 , USA Today report. 

Alarmingly, the Chicago metropolitan area has been ranked first nationwide for emergency room visits related to heroin use, according to an Aug. 11 Roosevelt University study titled “Diminishing Capacity: The Heroin Crisis and Illinois Treatment in National Perspective.” 

No data exist regarding how many heroin users reside in the Chicago metropolitan area. Nationally, 314,000 individuals reported using heroin in 2007. In 2013, that statistic rose to 681,000 users, according to Roosevelt’s study.

The study also found that Illinois has the third-worst treatment capacity in the nation. In 2012, Illinois was ranked 44th. In early September, the state Senate approved a bill that would address heroin abuse by expanding treatment options and requiring Illinois’ Medicaid program, as well as private insurance companies, to pay for drug treatment in an effort to increase treatment accessibility. Treatment programs are the most effective way to combat the increase in heroin abuse, according to the study’s author, Kathie Kane-Willis, director of Roosevelt’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy. 

The bill also requires police and fire departments, as well as public school nurses, to stock antidotes to treat opiate overdoses, according to a Sept. 2 Chicago Tribune article. Increased access to overdose-reversing medications can reduce heroin-related deaths, as well as encourage users to seek treatment. On Sept. 11, Alderman Ed Burke (14th Ward) and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin announced the joint Cook-Chicago Task Force Against Heroin “to address the heroin crisis in Cook County,” according to county records. The task force’s mission is to fight heroin overdoses. 

The creation of the task force is a step in the right direction. However, reducing heroin abuse in the Chicago metropolitan area must go beyond working to take dealers off the street. A visible anti-heroin campaign would increase awareness. Anti-marijuana advertisements can be found on city trains, at Chicago Transit Authority bus stops and on television commercials. A similar campaign by the Task Force or other anti-drug agencies would lead to a better-informed society and foster conversations about the dangers of heroin abuse. CAPS meetings could also serve as an excellent forum for law enforcement to communicate current and relevant information to citizens about progress in reducing heroin’s prevalence.

In Illinois, 25 percent of state-funded treatments prescribed were for heroin, compared to 16 percent nationally, according to the Roosevelt study. Increasing funding for medication-assisted treatment would lower crime and save money, according to Kane-Willis. 

“The benefits of providing [the treatment] methadone for just 2,500 people could save the state up to $100 million in reduced crime and health-care consequences,” Kane-Willis said in an Aug. 11 Roosevelt press release. 

Heroin abuse in the city and surrounding suburbs is a devastating problem that needs to be addressed. There is no single strategy to lower statistics and save lives. A combination of education and legislation—as well as communication between law enforcement and the public regarding the realities of heroin abuse—attacks the problem at different angles, which would likely lead to a decrease in overdoses and usage.