DOWNERS GROVE – Heroin deaths have spiked in 2013, but county officials said Monday night that the issue has still not received the attention it warrants or deserves.
"I can tell you that I've been very frustrated," DuPage County Coroner Dr. Richard Jorgenson said at a heroin forum Monday. "I think we're hiding our heads in the sand.
"We have to address this at a young age, and we have to admit that we have a problem in DuPage County."
Jorgenson was joined by DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin and Robert Crown Center Interim Director Joan Olson at the forum, hosted by state Reps. Patti Bellock and Sandy Pihos at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.
There have been 42 heroin-related deaths in DuPage County so far this year, already surpassing the entire 2012 total of 38. Overdose victims this year have been as young as 15 and as old as 64, though most have been in their 20s.
"This is a real problem," Jorgenson said. "It's getting worse, it's not getting better. It's in all ages, all municipalities and all socioeconomic groups."
The panel spoke to a crowd of more than 50 who gathered at the hospital, including concerned parents, healthcare professionals and family members of overdose victims.
Audrey Albright of Lombard lost her son to a heroin overdose in October 2012, she said.
"We do not want any families to go through what we experienced," she said. "We are living with half a heart every day. My son would have celebrated his 23rd birthday [Tuesday], and I'll sing happy birthday tomorrow in front of his urn. And I'll release a balloon to heaven for him."
Jorgenson and Berlin said many addicts start with prescription pain killers like Vicodin or Oxycontin, and when those pills run out, it's easier to feed the opiate addiction with heroin. A tenth of a gram of heroin sells for about $10 on the street, he said.
Contributing to the addictive quality of heroin and the number of overdoses is an increasing purity in the drug on the street. Most heroin was only about 4 percent pure 30 or 40 years ago, he said. Now, users can drive to the west side of Chicago and buy heroin with a purity of about 35 percent.
The biggest message from all the speakers was to speak to children and educate them on the dangers of the drug. Berlin also encouraged families to dispose of unused pain killers before they fall into the hands of children, and to make sure any child prescribed pain killers by a doctor or dentist are only taking the recommended dosage.
"When people get prescribed prescription drugs, you usually get maybe 30 pills," Berlin said. "Most people use maybe a third of those. And what's happening with the rest of those, they're ending up in your medicine cabinet where kids have access to those."
He said that a few years ago, the entire county would see maybe five or six felony heroin cases a year.
But this year, out of 185 felony drug possession cases, 57 of those were for heroin, and 26 were for prescription pills. Only cocaine exceeded heroin, with 66 felony cases so far in 2013, Berlin said.
Despite the number of arrests and increased focus by law enforcement, Berlin said heroin is not a problem the county can "arrest and prosecute our way out of."
"The system is simply not set up for it and it can not handle these types of numbers," he said. "And when you're dealing with addicts, sending them to prison simply doesn't work, you're not curing the addiction."
Berlin pointed to DuPage County's drug court, which seeks to rehabilitate drug users instead of incarcerating them, as a step in the right direction. He said only 8 percent of offenders who complete the drug court process go on to commit another felony within three years, compared with 30 percent of convicts who go through the regular court system.
He and Jorgenson also pointed to two new laws in Illinois as positive steps. One gives immunity to drug users who may be holding narcotics when they call 911 to save an overdosing friend. If the caller has less than 3 grams of drugs, police will not press charges for possession.
A second new law allows healthcare professionals to distribute Naloxone, a heroin overdose antidote, to anyone who requests the drug.
"Sometimes we have to think outside the box," Jorgenson said.