Heroin in black and white – Part 2 of 2
Oak Park police take a hard and unapologetic line against possession of heroin. But only the most hard-line drug warriors still contend that society’s struggle against the effects of heroin use and traffic will be won solely through enforcement efforts.
River Forest Police Chief Frank Limon has spent much of his career fighting the war against drugs. He insists a solution must involve a wide-ranging strategy that attacks both the supply and demand.
“We’re fighting the war on drugs against the sellers, but we need to fight aggressively against the demand side to have a real permanent effect,” said Limon. “I’m pro-enforcing the law. But the other part of it is looking at a comprehensive strategy that addresses the whole picture.”
Neither Limon nor others contacted claim to have all the answers, but all agree it starts with greater public awareness of the problem. The big picture, they say, includes drug treatment, education, social intervention and a greater awareness of the real-life consequences of drug use.
“Gang intervention, stopping kids from getting into gangs. Drug education in schools,” Limon said, ticking off the key elements, including addiction treatment. “The fact is, if they get addicted, they need help,” he said. “There’s ways to reverse it.”
Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley agrees.
“We’re not going to make a dent until we somehow, in cooperation with the city, affect the demand side,” said Tanksley. He said everyone – police, health workers, elected officials and the general public – need to develop a better understanding of the realities of why drugs are such a challenge.
“Families get destroyed by this,” said Tanksley. “It’s not just that individual’s habit. It’s the family’s habit. They’re taking dad’s car keys to make buys. They’re stealing from the family. They’re committing crimes they wouldn’t ordinarily commit.”
John FS Williams, head of Oak Park Township Youth Services and the village’s Gang and Drug Task Force, works with his staff, talking with kids and young adults, trying to prevent and intervene before law enforcement gets involved.
A powerful drug
SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration produces the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) targeting the civilian, non-institutionalized population, age 12 or older. The combined 2004-2006 NSDUHs found that 8.1 percent of persons in the United States, 12 or older, had used an illicit drug in the past month. Removing marijuana from the statistics, 3.5 percent had done harder drugs like heroin. An estimated 357,000 used heroin nationwide in 2006. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) identifies Cook County as one of the worst areas in the country for heroin abuse.
According to SAMHSA, heroin, when ingested, binds with opiate receptors found in many regions of the brain, resulting in intense but brief euphoria, That “rush” is followed by up to two hours of a relaxed, contented state.
The downside is withdrawal. Depending on the depth of addiction, symptoms include nausea, dysphoria (the polar opposite of euphoria, muscle aches, sweating, diarrhea, fever, and insomnia).
“It feels like the worst flu you’ve ever had in your life,” said Williams, noting that he’s not aware of any serious heroin pattern currently in Oak Park. The biggest problem the past 10 months, he said, is marijuana.
“There’s a lot of pot out there,” he said.
Heroin’s use among local kids, he said, is cyclical. “It ebbs and flows,” he said. “It becomes a thing where a group of people get into it, and the individuals in that group start falling apart. They run through their money and undergo physical deterioration.”
Williams said nobody in their right mind undertakes the risks associated with buying heroin. But consequences mean little to a person addicted to heroin – driving hours to a dangerous neighborhood, risking arrest, risking overdose, committing crimes – none of it poses as much of a threat to the addict as not getting more heroin.
Young people starting out have no idea what they’re really getting into, said Williams. Working against addicts, he said, is the body’s practice of adapting to what it knows is poison by building up a tolerance for that substance. “You overcome that tolerance by increasing the dose,” he said.
The result is an all-consuming 24/7, 365-day-a-year need to do more heroin to avoid experiencing withdrawal – what’s been called “having a monkey on your back.”
“They’re not getting high anymore; they’re trying to get straight,” said Williams.
No one goes “from zero to heroin.”
“No one goes from never drinking or smoking to doing heroin,” he said. While he thinks some of the scare tactics aimed at marijuana use are simply not true, he’s a firm believer that it, along with alcohol, is a “gateway” drug.
He uses the analogy of someone building up the courage to cliff dive.
“If you start cliff-diving from, say, 100 feet, that’s scary,’ he said. “If you start from 10 feet up, that’s not so scary.”
“You’re hanging around with people who are reinforcing doing stupid things,” said Williams. “It’s not the drug itself. It’s the culture of drugs. Once you’re comfortable doing something illegal [like pot], it makes it easier to do other illegal things.”
In time, kids are doing things they’d never have considered before.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s crazy or insane, whereas six months before, that wasn’t the case.”
“They don’t realize they can get killed or arrested or overdose,” said Limon.
Williams said it’s all but impossible for people to not notice a new addict’s change in behavior.
Teens embroiled in addiction suffer rapid physical deterioration. Once the drugs takes hold with teens, the effect is devastating – physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.
“It’s pretty dramatic,” he said. “Things start crumbling, the wheels come off pretty fast. It’s not a quiet thing. It just screws them up so badly.”
“When you get addicted to something, everything else in your life takes a back seat,” Williams said. “It’s like, you really love your grandmother. You’ve loved her all your life,” said Williams. “[But] you’d step on her face to get that next high. You’d feel horribly guilty afterwards, so you’d get high again.”
Limon noted there are substances every bit as bad as, or worse than, heroin. He supervised Chicago’s on-the-street response to the deadly August-December 2006 Fentanyl-laced heroin crisis that resulted in 300 people dying county-wide and 2,000 ending up in emergency rooms. He recalled one addict he spoke with after he’d overdosed twice in a single day.
“He said it was the best stuff he’d ever had,” said Limon. “He got treated by an ambulance, went back out and copped again – and ODed again.”
All involved say it’s clear it won’t be the users themselves who seek help.
“If somebody out there loves that person, they need to reach out and get help for them,” said Limon. No one involved in this is safe, he added, no matter where they come from, how careful they are, how wealthy or privileged.
“The proof is there,” said Limon. “I’ve got hundreds of pictures of dead bodies, with needles in their arms.”