Chicago Battling Not Only Violence But Heroin Epidemic As Well, The City Is ‘Ground Zero’

It has been a very violent year of bloodshed and loss so far in Chicago. The violence is unquestionable and has resulted in 500 homicides and 3,000 victims of gunshots. However, another epidemic has the city in its grips. Heroin deaths are on the rise, to the point that Will County Coroner, Patrick O’Neil relays that he often has a hunch about cause of death in cases before he even receives the toxicology report back. The coroner shares about how widespread the heroin epidemic is.

“They were housewives, athletes, grandparents, cheerleaders, and straight-A students, from the age of 17 to 72,” he said.

In the metropolis of Chicago, the percentage of treatment admissions for heroin is more than double the national average from 2012, as noted in a study by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. The same study also indicates that Chicago ranks No. 1 for number of emergency room visits for the purpose of heroin treatment and overdose. The west side of the city accounted for 1 out of 4 opioid-related visits in the entire state of Illinois.

As NBC shares, there were 2,113 heroin deaths in Illinois from 2013 to 2015. Reportedly 1,425 of those deaths occurred in Chicago and the collar counties.

A spokesperson for Illinois Department of Public Health, Melaney Arnold, shared about the rise in deaths from the drug and also shares that the number could even be off due to reports not being made.

“We’ve seen the numbers of deaths go up. Heroin overdose deaths were underreported previously and they could be under-reported right now.”

The reason for this, as explained by Arnold, involves the fact that death reports did not always indicate that “heroin” was the cause of death. The reports would instead be labelled as “opiate intoxication” or just a generic “overdose” without any note as to what kind of drug was responsible.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the Department of Health began to see an increase in the death reports which stated “heroin” specifically was the cause of death.

“Some states tracked it more than others,” said Karmen Hanson, a health policy manager at the National Conference of State Legislators.

“Recently, a lot more states are taking actions to track heroin overdoses more closely then they have in the past because of all the attention from media and the public.”

The problem was spotted years ago by many health professionals, like O’Neil. He shares how the number of deaths from the potent and highly-addictive substance has continued to increase since 1999.

“Before 1999, we would get maybe one heroin death per year in the county, and then all of a sudden it jumped to five a year and just kept increasing.”

The coroner’s concerns and statistics reached state Representative Lou Lang. Once Lang heard of the shocking increase in heroin abuse within the state, he formed a task force of 39 bipartisan state legislators to conduct research and travel the state for a year to uncover the details in the drug epidemic. Following collecting over a hundred testimonies from health professionals, parents and police, along with users themselves, the Illinois representative and his task force created House Bill 1.

“We were ground zero in America. Not just in rough shape but ground zero. Other states were doing a little of this and a little of that, but I wanted something complete and comprehensive. This law goes way beyond what any other state has done, It is the most comprehensive and wide-reaching piece of legislation aimed at battling heroin addiction.”

The bill passed in a unanimous vote and also survived a veto by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. The bill became the Heroin Crisis Act. The 250 plus page law requires that Medicaid pay for any medication-based substance abuse treatment, and allows pharmacies to dispense heroin reversal drugs. It also gives authorization for school nurses to administer reversal drugs and to impose strict reporting rules on health care providers for the purpose of promoting reliable data.

[Feature Image by John Moore/Getty Images]