Naperville has a problem that officials say blame and shame won’t help solve. The problem is heroin use.
The number of young people in Naperville who are using the drug has grown exponentially in recent years, and according to one official heroin use is up 200 percent in Chicago’s collar counties.
The first responders, police, therapists and psychiatrists who see the problems first hand know the only way to begin addressing the issue is through community dialog.
On Wednesday night, about 50 people attended the program: “Right in Your Own Backyard: Heroin in Naperville” at . The hospital has partnered with the and to begin a community discussion around the problem of drug addiction and in particular heroin use.
Representatives from the police and fire departments along with officials from Edward Hospital and Linden Oaks provided those in attendance with information related to the problem, from statistics on the growing number of heroin arrests, overdoses and deaths, to the medical problems and the trends in drug use.
Police Chief David Dial wore his police badge with a black band around it, normally a symbol that an officer has died. Dial said it was to signify: “the death of our young people from heroin and heroin addiction.”
Later in the program, Dial expressed his dissatisfaction that an event expected to draw 200 had only drawn about 50 people. He told the crowd that as more meetings are held it is incumbent upon those who attended this meeting to ask others residents to attend.
Dial and Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis said that heroin use is a major problem in Naperville and something both departments see too often.
While it’s been reported that heroin use is down in Chicago, Dial told the crowd that isn’t the case in the suburbs where in the collar counties heroin use is up 200 percent.
“Drug addiction and drug overdose is common nationwide,” Puknaitis said. “We live in a community where people don’t think it happens. … Youths don’t think they will get caught up in it. We need to do something to curb the problem.”
If something isn’t done, he said, the problem would escalate.
“This is real. This isn’t something we think could happen or something we forecast might happen. It is happening,” Puknaitis said. “We need to do something in the community to alleviate that.”
Detectives Mike Umbenhower and Shaun Ferguson of the Naperville Police Department work undercover in the narcotics division. The detectives reinforced the message that though it may appear that heroin affects only a small group in the community, the reach is much broader.
Not only will heroin use rip families apart, it impacts the community through increases in theft, burglary and also endangers community members when heroin paraphernalia, including dirty needles, are carelessly left behind in public places from coffee shop bathrooms to parks.
“Ninety-eight percent of thefts and burglaries are related to drugs,” Umbenhower said. “It affects everybody.”
The officers said that cannabis is a gateway drug that often leads to heroin use. Cannabis today is not like the cannabis of 30 years ago, it is extremely powerful, Ferguson said.
The officers also emphasized that parents must be in control of prescription drugs, which are also gateway drugs that lead to heroin use. Leaving prescription drugs in a bathroom cabinet unmonitored is like leaving a loaded gun out for kids, Ferguson said. The result will be devastating.
While many of the youths who are using heroin will travel to Chicago, which the officers called the heroin capital of the United States, dealers are starting to come to the source. They know that kids are lazy and may not want to get caught, so they are starting to come to the suburbs.
The majority of those arrested for heroin possession are Naperville residents. Eighty-two percent are white and 78 percent are male. Since 2009, the majority of arrests for heroin possesion have been among those age 20-30.
The officers said the reason fewer arrests are made among those who are older is because over time, people either get help and leave heroin behind or eventually they die.
Those in attendance learned from Fire Bureau Chief Mark Thurow what paramedics do in cases of overdose and the response from heroin addicts, which is generally not a thankful response.
Thurow told the group that the department doesn’t differentiate a heroin overdose from any other kind of overdose. In 2009 there were a total of 144 overdoses, that number increased to 180 in 2010 and by the end of 2011 he estimates the number of overdoses will surpass 200.
The focus, Thurow said, needs to be on people and more people in the community need to get involved in the discussion.
Some of those in attendance expressed concern that the community seems to want to ignore that there is a problem.
“There needs to be more uprising in this community,” one parent said, adding, “I think the problem is that nobody wants to acknowledge that it is a problem.”
All of the officials said this was just the beginning of the conversation and that more meetings would be held to discuss the problem.