It’s not hard to get drugs in Oak Park and River Forest. Ask any high school kid if he knows someone he could score some marijuana from, and the answer will probably be yes. With a little more digging, he could probably score some mushrooms, cocaine or even heroin.

It’s simply a reality of teenage life — not to mention being so near to the city of Chicago and its bustling West Side drug markets.

But a Wednesday Journal reader who wrote to us earlier this year in the wake of our coverage of Oak Park and River Forest High School’s drug forum last spring asked a question that intrigued us: How exactly do drugs get here in the first place? What do these distribution networks look like? Who, exactly, is selling these drugs?

We consulted local experts: police, schools, and the township’s youth services. Together, they painted a picture of how drugs get into Oak Park.

One thing is clear about most local drug users: They’re not making the stuff themselves. They’re getting it from somewhere — or someone else.

Beyond that, though, the supply chains differ for different drugs.

Heroin: Top-down distribution

A study released by Chicago’s Roosevelt University earlier this year pegged Cook County as having one of the biggest heroin problems in the United States, and it’s shown locally.

Almost every week, someone is arrested in Oak Park or River Forest for possession of heroin. Often, the people arrested are out-of-towners with a relatively small amount of drugs, usually enough for personal use.

These addicts usually buy their drugs on the West Side, police say, and then drive back to a neighborhood they feel safe shooting up in. Oak Park and River Forest’s safe streets offer a sense of security for the addicts, a place where they feel they can get high without the fear of getting robbed, then jump on the highway and head back to their homes.

“They’re primarily white, primarily young, and they come from as far away as 60 to 70 miles to get their fix,” said Oak Park Police Chief Rick Tanksley. “Sad cases, really.”

The route heroin takes to get to that end user from the suburbs, though, is a fairly direct one, according to police and officials from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The vast majority of heroin used locally comes from south of the U.S. border in Mexico or beyond, where its production and dissemination is controlled by large, well-organized cartels.

Once the drugs are smuggled into the U.S., they’re distributed through a number of channels. Heroin may move through a few mid-level distributors before it eventually makes it to street-level dealers. These can be gangs, or simply independent entrepreneurs.

Either way, these are generally business-savvy individuals, according to River Forest Police Detective Sgt. Marty Grill.

“Heroin addicts are very sensitive as to how they feel after they use the drugs,” Grill said. “They’ll say I don’t buy over on Cicero Avenue because they pack it light. The gangs are smart, so they load what they’re supposed to load, and they get customers who are repeat customers.”

But the thing about heroin’s distribution chain is that it usually ends there. Addicts aren’t usually very good at saving extra, either for reselling to other people or just keeping it for later.

“People in the area have figured out, if you’re going to buy heroin in some other town 15 miles away or 30 miles away, it’s going to cost more out there,” Grill said. “I ask them why they don’t buy more and save some for later or resell it, and they tell me it’s simple — if they buy more, they’ll use more.”

Marijuana: A flatter network

That’s not the case with marijuana, though. As a much more popular — and much less addictive — drug, pot is distributed in a much more democratic way.

Because of its popularity, it’s much easier to get your hands on. And because it’s not as addictive, people don’t necessarily smoke everything they buy.

That leads to a flatter distribution network, with people buying more than they need, then selling the excess to support their own habit.

Compared to heroin’s direct, pyramid-style distribution system that leads to the end user, this social distribution system is much more web-like. By the time the last bit of pot gets sent out, it’s so far divorced from the original source that it’s likely taken more steps from a user’s peers than it did from the original grower’s distribution chain into Oak Park or River Forest to begin with.

“It’s a much more social type of thing,” Tanksley said. “You’re most likely to get it from your friends, your brothers and sisters coming back from college — individuals in the community.”

There are still vast organizations focused on the production of marijuana, but the growing operations are based out of the U.S. more frequently than heroin’s are. Because it’s easier to grow and package, pot has more room for independent growers, as well — people setting up a rural grow house on a farm, or even in an urban area. The drugs don’t necessarily have to come from gangs.

Nevertheless, because of that flat distribution network, it’s often more difficult to trace just where the drugs are coming from.

“By the time we get it, it’s usually so separated from the source that we don’t really see those bigger connections,” Grill said.

That separation from the more potentially scary, industrial business aspects of drug dealing — and the fact that these drugs can be bought conveniently from your friends, without having to go to the West Side — is a big factor in marijuana’s prevalence, said John Williams, director of youth services for Oak Park and River Forest townships.

“It’s like having a whole bunch of chains of competing restaurants,” said Williams. “There are a lot of fast food hamburger joints. There’s a lot of different sources, and you don’t have to go very far to find them.”

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Ben Meyerson

Ben was Wednesday Journal's crime, parks, and River Forest reporter, until he kept bugging us enough to promote him. Now he's managing two of Wednesday Journal's sister papers in the city, Chicago Journal...

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