Cody Lewis, now a 21-year-old recovering addict, said his first experience with heroin came in high school.
"I tried it, and as soon as I felt that high from the heroin, it was like a void inside me was filled up," he said. "Something that I was looking for my entire life, I found it in that little bag."
Lewis shared his story at the first of two forums hosted by the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin on Thursday at the DuPage County Administration Building in Wheaton. The coalition, led by several county government entities, presented to both local educators and residents about the growing need for educating the community – especially children – about the dangers of heroin.
The effort was funded in large part by a recent county budget allocation of $100,000 after the toll for heroin-related deaths in the county reached a record of 46 in 2013.
Of the 206 pending drug possession cases in the county, 41 percent involve heroin, said State's Attorney Robert Berlin. For comparison, in 2004, he said the county had less than five such cases.
To combat the problem, the coalition announced the launch of a new website, www.HeroinDuPage.org, and a social media campaign that presents a variety of information, such as the dangers of heroin, the state's Good Samaratin law, treatment facilities and resources for family and friends of addicts.
In addition, it offered educators tool kits with similar information, encouraging them to bring the knowledge back to their school districts.
"We want to make this a lot more public, shine a spotlight on it so people will know where to get help and start the healing process," said Grant Eckhoff, a member of the DuPage County Board and the coalition.
County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said heroin is a problem all over the county and across all socioeconomic backgrounds.
The only solution to the epidemic, Jorgensen said, is to change the dialogue and inform people. He has experienced the deadly impact of the drug first hand, he said, particularly on the county's younger population.
"Most of the age range of people that die are in their younger ages, because there's only three things that happen to people that take heroin: they go into recovery, they end up with State's Attorney Berlin and you go to jail, or you end up with me in the morgue," he said.
Knowledge about the dangers of the highly addictive drug is a major component in fighting its influence, Jorgensen said.
"I personally believe that part of the problem that we have is that all drugs have been dumped into one container and we confuse the fact that there are really exceedingly dangerous and killer drugs and then there are other drugs," he said, adding that President Barack Obama recently said marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol.
Bill Patrianakos, a member of the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization Board of Directors and a recovering heroin addict, said lessons about how all drugs were equally dangerous and bad did him little good.
Patrianakos said his addiction, which started with marijuana and escalated to opiates, came from feelings of depression, and that his drug use helped him self-medicate.
"Kids use for a lot of different reasons," he said. "Boredom, curiosity, some sort of underlying mental illness going on that nobody knows about."
But by having a mature conversation about the real consequences of drugs, he said, especially the dangers of heroin, there is a chance to reach more people.
New website: www.HeroinDuPage.org
Deaths attributed to heroin overdose in DuPage County
2013 – 46
2012 – 38
2011 – 23
2010 – 29
Founding members of the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin
• County Board Chairman Dan Cronin
• State's Attorney Robert Berlin
• Coroner Richard Jorgensen
• Regional Superintendent Darlene Ruschitti
• Sheriff John Zaruba
• Public Defender Jeff York
• DuPage County Health Department
• DuPage County Chiefs of Police Association