LAKE VILLA – Make no mistakes about it: Drugs and gangs have an impact throughout the county.
That's the message of Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim.
"Every single community in Lake County is affected by street gangs. Maybe not as much as Waukegan, North Chicago, the Round Lake area, Zion, but there is an effect," he told the Lindenhurst-Lake Villa Chamber of Commerce recently. "We have had more people die from heroin than car accidents.
All you have to do is look at the map where drug overdoses have happened in Lake County, a map that the county coroner maintains, Nerheim said.
Heroin, he said, isn't the taboo it once was. Now, the user can be the captain of the football team.
"It's very cheap. It's coming from Mexico – the Sinaloa cartel," Nerheim said. "Chicago is the heroin distribution hub. You can buy heroin for $5. You don't have to go to Chicago anymore. You can probably drive 5 miles from here. It's an addiction you'll probably battle for the rest of your life."
He said his youngest child is 10, and that as a parent, the heroin epidemic "scares the hell out of me." But he said he was glad he was a prosecutor, so he could do something about the problem.
How does the football captain become a heroin addict?
An injury may require expensive prescription drugs, so a cheaper alternative – heroin – becomes attractive. All of the player's friends assure him it is harmless, Nerheim said.
'Their bibs are gang colors'
Almost all heroin, the state's attorney said, is sold by street gangs.
"We like to think of gangs as thugs on the street, but they are completely organized. They have hierarchies that rival most corporations," Nerheim said.
A new state law, he said, allows prosecutors to go after anyone connected with gangs found to be criminal organizations.
"This is a whole different way for us to think," Nerheim said.
He said he was glad that Lake County's police chiefs are cooperating in the effort.
"That's the only way we can do this," Nerheim said. "Waukegan's problem is your problem."
Society, though, will never completely eliminate gangs, he said.
"They are so entrenched," he said. "They're born gang members. Their parents are gang members. Their bibs are gang colors."
'Drug war is a failure'
Some disagree with the way society handles drug issues. Maryland-based Law Enforcement Against Drug Prohibition, or LEAP, which formed in 2002, has long argued against the drug war.
The group says it doesn't promote drug use and that it is deeply concerned with substance abuse. But the problem isn't solved by the current policy of drug prohibition, according to its statement of principles on its website.
"Indeed, drug abuse and gang violence flourish in a drug prohibition environment, just as they did during alcohol prohibition," the statement says.
Rather, the group recommends, society should replace prohibition with regulation, including age restrictions.
"LEAP believes that adult drug abuse is a health problem and not a law enforcement matter, provided that the abuse does not harm other people or the property of others," it says on its website.
Stephen Downing was the deputy police chief for the Los Angeles Police Department when President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in the 1970s. He headed the department's drug enforcement effort back then, but now he favors legalization.
The war's goals, he told Lake County Suburban Life, included reducing drug use, overdose deaths and arrests, but the exact opposite has happened.
He said many police officers share his position – privately.
"If you talk with them in public, officers don't agree [with legalization]," Downing said. "If you talk with them in private, they admit that the drug war is a failure. Most of those who acknowledge that are rank-and-file."
The upper echelons, by contrast, support the war because it brings in federal money for their departments.
As for the drug cartels, Downing said, "we would put them out of business if we legalized drugs."