One year ago, DuPage County made headlines across the nation after 11 residents died of heroin overdose in July alone – almost half of the 23 that had died up to that point in 2013.
County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said during a presentation to the county board in September that users of hard drugs go into a spiral ending "in rehabilitation if you're lucky, our criminal justice system if you're also lucky, or death."
The death toll and subsequent presentation were a wake-up call, said board member and Judicial and Public Safety Committee Chairman Grant Eckhoff.
"We had to get educated and sit down with the people who knew what they were talking about," he said. "If any of us had known what was going on beforehand, we should have sounded the alarm instead of waiting on the coroner to do it."
Soon after, the county formed an exploratory committee focused on the problem, he said.
"My first reaction was, buy bigger guns, build bigger jails, put more cops on the street," Eckhoff said of his position at the time.
But State's Attorney Robert Berlin dissuaded him.
"The research is out there that when you're talking about drug addicts, not sellers, for users of narcotics who are addicted to the drug, putting them in jail doesn't solve the problem," Berlin said in a recent interview. "If we assume that they want treatment ... it is a better option and has much better results than incarceration."
Berlin said in most drug possession cases, the people going to jail are repeat offenders. The best approach is to focus on limiting access to drugs by putting dealers in prison – his office charged 31 people in a heroin bust in August – and educating the public about the dangers of the drug, he said.
The DuPage County Board dramatically added $100,000 for heroin awareness education at the last minute to its 2014 budget in November.
The money has since been used to help form the DuPage Coalition Against Heroin, a group made up of a number of county stakeholders, including the state's attorney, sheriff's department, county board, superintendent of schools and health department.
The coalition has spearheaded outreach, created a new website aggregating resources and information about heroin addiction, and recently helped establish a pilot with the Robert Crown Center for Health Education to bring awareness programs to 12 area middle and high schools.
"That's going to be our best method of attacking the problem, preventing future users," Berlin said. "And I'm going to continue to aggressively go after drug dealers, because it sends a message to the community that, in the county, we're not going to tolerate it."
The health department also began training local police departments to use a drug, naloxone, that reverses the effects of opioid overdose. The department allotted $40,000 for the program, and is working to shore up additional funding for it to continue.
So far this year, 12 people have received the drug after overdosing, said Jorgensen. He was careful not to give naloxone life-saving credit in all 12, but said the total number of deaths is down in 2014.
There have been 15 confirmed heroin deaths with three possible cases pending, he said. By August 2013, there were 34.
Jorgensen had previously touted the benefits of increased addiction treatment resources around the county, but now says education should be the main focus.
"Not to shortchange getting people into recovery or the criminal aspect ... but the biggest bang for our buck is early education and teaching our youth the dangers of heroin and drug addiction," he said.
Eckhoff said the short-term focus on combating heroin in the county centers on ensuring the Robert Crowne partnership goes smoothly and expands. But he also said the coalition is looking at the use of Vivitrol, a prescription injectible medicine used to treat alcohol and opioid dependence by curbing cravings.
Eckhoff said he would continue to be open to the advice of other professionals.
"I think [the county board] respect[s] all the county-wide elected officials," Eckhoff said. "If every person is saying the same thing, I think it would be a little tough to buck the horse."
Heroin overdose death statistics
By Aug. 2013: 34
End of 2013: 46
Through July 22: 15 (3 possible)
Number of naloxone uses: 12
Officers trained in naloxone administration: 1,726