Last year, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in the 12 months leading to April 2021 — a nearly 30 percent increase from the roughly 78,000 overdose deaths the year before.
And earlier this year, Cook County health officials announced that overdose deaths in the county were on a startling growth trajectory — from 647 in 2015 to more than 2,000 once final autopsy results from suspected cases come in.
Experts are responding in a variety of ways to the growing drug overdose epidemic and the need for more robust treatment services. On May 10, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recognized the first ever National Fentanyl Awareness Day.
Roughly a week later, on May 15, addiction treatment specialists and other drug prevention experts organized a bike ride from Oak Park to Maywood and afternoon brunch to raise awareness about drug addiction treatment.
Saturday’s 5-mile ride started at Grateful House, the substance abuse treatment center at 412 Wesley St. in Oak Park and ended at Way Back Inn, a substance-abuse treatment facility at 104 Oak St. in Maywood.
During a brunch in Way Back Inn’s backyard, the people on the front lines of the country’s drug epidemic gathered under a tent to refresh, regroup and exchange ideas.
Kelly O’Connor, the prevention services manager with Oak Park Township who heads up Positive Youth Development, which sponsored the bike ride along with Way Back Inn, the village of Maywood and the Addiction Recovery Team, said there’s a critical shortage of awareness about drug usage, which feeds into a lack of sufficient mitigation strategies.
Positive Youth Development is a coalition of community stakeholders that works to identify ways of reducing alcohol and drug use among young people in Oak Park and River Forest. The first step is knowing what the young people are doing, and O’Connor’s been paying attention.
What’s trending now, she and others said, are pharm parties (also called pill parties or skittles parties). The basic concept is simple. Teens throw whatever medications they see lying around the house into a bowl and eat them like party candy.
“Scoop up a handful and whatever you get, you get,” said Sandra Harrison, who along with her husband, Darryl, owns a leadership and development consulting firm and also works with the West Side Heroin and Opioid Task Force. “You don’t even have to know what they are.”
O’Connor said emoji drug codes are also trending. She directed the Harrisons to the “Emoji Drug Code” that the DEA released last week to alert parents of codes that children could use to get drugs and that dealers use to sell them online.
For instance, the code for heroin is a brown heart beside a dragon. There are also emoji combinations for everything from Percocet and oxycodone to meth and cocaine.
O’Connor said while she refrains from using scare tactics, awareness about what’s happening is an important part of prevention.
When it comes to opioid overdoses, O’Connor said, the most significant contributor is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s about 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the CDC.
O’Connor and the Harrisons said more testing of opioid substances should be done, even by potential users, in order to avoid a fatal fentanyl overdose.
“People need to understand that if you are going to buy something from someone off the street, there’s an 80 to 90% chance that it’s fentanyl,” O’Connor said.
In Oak Park, according to data provided by the Cook County medical examiner, there were 17 drug overdoses in 2021 — up from 11 in 2020. There have been four so far this year. All but two of those overdoses from 2020 to May 16, 2022 were caused by a combination of drugs that involved fentanyl, the data shows.
In Maywood, there were 15 drug overdoses in 2020 and 16 overdoses between 2021 and May 16, 2022, with all but two of those 31 overdoses involving fentanyl.
Oak Park Village President Vicki Scaman, who listened to the backyard dialogue seated next to Maywood Mayor Nathaniel George Booker, said she echoes the concerns of the experts. After all, before she became village clerk in 2015 and eventually president, she was working in O’Connor’s role.
The two mayors discussed ways that their respective suburbs could collaborate to help spread awareness and prevention.
“During the bike ride, we talked about having the youth [in Oak Park and Proviso townships] collaborate and network,” Mayor Booker said.
For Darryl Harrison, the work of drug prevention and awareness has a very personal resonance.
“As a survivor of the crack epidemic, I tell people all the time, it was curiosity for me,” he said. “I was curious about this drug and I tried it. When I think about it now, I realize that could have been my last day on earth.”
To learn more about the Way Back Inn, visit waybackinn.org. To learn more about Positive Youth Development, visit oakparktownship.org/prevention-services. To learn more about Addiction Recovery Team, visit addictionrecoveryteam.org.