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In suburbs, heroin and opioid epidemic moving 'faster than we can deal with it'

Annual summit held to address heroin, opioid epidemic

Audience members listen to Martin Clancy, project coordinator of drug overdose prevention programs at the Lake County Health Department, on Friday during the 2017 heroin summit in Romeoville.
Audience members listen to Martin Clancy, project coordinator of drug overdose prevention programs at the Lake County Health Department, on Friday during the 2017 heroin summit in Romeoville.

ROMEOVILLE – The consensus of a summit on the heroin and opioid epidemic in Illinois is that the fight to prevent drug use and overdoses is long from over.

It’s a fight that has become more fierce in the face of an opioid painkiller called fentanyl and with the fatal overdose toll in Will County rising to 77 last year, the highest in at least six years. 

Over the years, law enforcement, lawmakers, nonprofits and others have worked together to address the drug overdose epidemic. But those involved in the fight said at the sixth annual HERO-HELPS Southwest Coalition Community Summit that more efforts are needed. The event was held Friday at the Edward Hospital Athletic & Events Center in Romeoville.

“All the things we’re doing – all these progressive things – and the numbers just keep skyrocketing,” said Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow. “So, we have to continue doing what we’re doing and come up with new methods.”

Glasgow is one of several involved in heroin and opioid prevention efforts who shared what they’re doing to get the crisis under control. For him, the best tool the county has is its drug court, which helps drug addicts recover in ways that can’t be done in a private facility. 

“We got to figure another way to get that kind of treatment methodology to everybody,” he said.

Even though law enforcement in Will County has aggressively pursued drug-induced homicide cases and arrested dealers, a major roadblock is the heroin drug trade in Chicago. He said heroin isn’t readily available in Will County but people can obtain it in Chicago. 

“All our kids are going to the big city to get this drug, so the whole state has got to come together and figure out a way to stop that,” he said.

Glasgow suggested a cooperative effort with law enforcement in northern Illinois to arrest drug dealers in Chicago, as he assumes the city’s high murder rate is keeping police “working round the clock," leaving little time to go after dealers.

“Until that supply ends, we’re going to be having the same bad news every year at this conference,” Glasgow said.

State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, sponsor of the landmark Heroin Crisis Act, said the legislation that became law in 2015 was only the “beginning of a long road.”

Few were talking about fentanyl in the early stages of the legislation, which aims to expand substance abuse treatment, prevent overprescribing of pain medicine and make Narcan – an overdose antidote – more widely available.

But now fentanyl is becoming its own crisis and people are finding ways around efforts to stop prescription drug abuse, he said. 

“As fast as we can move this forward, the problem is still lurching forward faster than we can deal with it,” Lang said.

Lang said he’s serving on new committees focused on addressing mental health and substance abuse because the cross section between the two is strong. 

Will County is working to train more first responders and agencies that care for people with a high risk for drug addiction on using Narcan and trying to connect addicts to services that can help them, said Kathleen Burke, the county’s new director of substance use initiatives.

She said the county will focus on police departments that would like to be a safe haven for those who need services and on educating people, including those in eastern Will County, about what’s available. 

“If you’re not in the heart of the community, you can get disconnected and my purpose in the work that I do is to bring people together,” Burke said.

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