The Chicago metropolitan region ranks among the worst in the nation for heroin use and problems associated with heroin use, a new study by Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy shows.
Released on Monday, June 28, the study by Roosevelt researchers Kathleen Kane-Willis and Stephanie Schmitz finds that more people are going to hospital emergency rooms in Chicago and its suburbs with problems related to heroin than in any other major metropolitan area in the nation. What’s more, more Illinoisans enter public treatment for heroin than for cocaine and marijuana, making heroin the most common illegal substance for which individuals seek treatment.
“Chicago has one of the worst – if not the worst – heroin problems in the nation,” said Kane-Willis, one of the authors of the new report, “Heroin Use in Illinois: A Ten Year Multiple Indicator Analysis – 1998 to 2008.” “It’s a problem that goes beyond the city of Chicago, into the suburbs and outlying areas, and for the first time, we have a clearer idea of who in our communities is using heroin,” she said.
Chicago in the National Comparisons — The Chicago metropolitan area ranked among the worst nationally for heroin-related problems in the following:
• First in the number of individuals admitted to the emergency department.
• First in the number and rate of females entering the emergency department.
• First in the number of men admitted to the emergency department.
• First in the number & rate of individuals aged 21 and older admitted to ER.
• First in the number of African Americans admitted to the emergency department.
• First in the percentage of arrestees in the Cook County jail testing positive for heroin.
• First in the percentage of white arrestees testing positive for heroin.
• First in the percentage of arrestees aged 21 and older testing positive for heroin.
• Second in the number of whites and Latinos admitted to the emergency department.
The Chicago metro region, including the city, Cook County suburbs and the collar counties, had the most cases of people with heroin problems using emergency rooms in the nation from 2004-08 – a whopping 23,931 cases in all, which was 50 percent more than were handled in New York City, which ranked second, during the same period, according to an analysis of data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).
An analysis of that data also showed that more women, men, African Americans and adults age 21 years or older on heroin in the Chicago area were flooding into emergency rooms for help from 2004-08 – more than in any other major metro region in the nation.
While heroin users in Chicago tended to be African American and older in age, users in Chicago’s suburbs and in other parts of Illinois, tended to be white and younger in age, including teens and young adults up to 24 years of age.
Regional Changes by Age: Chicago and the Suburban Areas Suburban individuals discharged for heroin tended to be young, as compared to discharges from Chicago:
• Of the teens discharged from hospitals for heroin in 2007, just 12 percent lived in
Chicago, 25 percent were from suburban Cook County and 38 percent were from the
• From 2008 to 2009, heroin discharges among teens continued to increase in the
suburbs, by 27 percent in suburban Cook County and 46 percent in the collar counties.
Chicago discharges declined by 1 percent.
• In 2007, among individuals aged 20 to 24 discharged from the hospital for heroin
problems, just 16 percent of those were from Chicago, 17 percent were from suburban Cook County, and 33 percent were from the collar counties.
• From 2008 to 2009, hospital discharges within the 20 to 24 year old age cohort
increased among those living in the suburbs, by 16 percent in suburban Cook County
and 8 percent in the collar county suburbs. Discharges among those living in Chicago
declined by 11 percent.
“While our public treatment systems in Illinois are being overwhelmed across the board, our research shows that there are differences in who is seeking treatment, depending on where one lives,” said Schmitz, co-author of the report. “Younger white users, who tend to inject heroin, are found in our suburbs and rural areas, while older African American users, who are less likely to inject the drug, are more apt to live in the city of Chicago.”
Meanwhile, the news about those using heroin and being arrested for crimes in Cook County was not favorable. In fact, nearly 29 percent of those arrested in Cook tested positive for heroin in 2008. That’s more than double the rate of arrestees testing positive for the drug in Washington D.C., which ranked second. The percentage of those arrestees in Cook County self-reporting heroin use dwarfed all others recorded at all other monitoring sites around the country by the U.S. Office of National Drug Policy’s Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program. In addition, the Chicago Police Department reported a 50 percent increase in the number of arrests for heroin from 2008 to 2009.
Researchers also found troubling evidence that heroin overdoses are on the rise in the region’s collar counties, including reports from area medical examiners of: a 130 percent increase in heroin deaths in Lake County between 2000 and 2009; a 150 percent increase in deaths in McHenry County in the last three years, and a doubling in deaths in Will County in two years’ time.
One piece of good news was that deaths from heroin overdoses in Cook County fell 16 percent during the last decade, an improvement the researchers say was possible thanks to a new state law allowing the prescribing of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of overdoses from opiates and heroin, and the work of one group, a needle exchange program in Chicago and Cook County called the Chicago Recovery Alliance, which has prescribed the overdose-reversal drug and has trained thousands how to use it in an emergency since 2001.
“We need more programs like this in our outlying areas if we are to get a handle on what is becoming a heroin epidemic,” Kane-Willis said.
Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy also is recommending:
Drug education for youth that includes information on heroin and the impact of its use. The consortium believes youth should be involved in development of drug-education curriculum and choice of educational materials so that information imparted will stick with youth.
An increase in treatment funding, particularly to those who are not eligible for Medicaid, working individuals with insurance restrictions and the unemployed. The study indicates that programs making available medically-assisted treatment and comprehensive treatment for those with co-existing mental and substance abuse disorders have been particularly hard hit in state of Illinois budget cuts.
Increased availability of syringes and more awareness about syringe access laws, including one 2003 state law that allows people to purchase and possess up to 20 syringes at a time without a prescription.
Limited protection for 911 callers reporting drug overdoses. This proposal has been controversial and has not been made legal in Illinois to date, primarily because of concerns that drug dealers could be granted immunity if they called 911. The study recommends prosecutors, Illinois lawmakers and treatment advocates come together to craft a law that will provide limited immunity to callers who might be able to prevent drug overdose deaths.
Major Mortality Trends in the Chicago Metropolitan Area
There have been large increases in heroin overdoses in the collar counties:
• In Lake County, deaths increased by 130 percent from 2000 to 2009.
• In just three years, deaths in McHenry County increased by 150 percent.
• In just two years, deaths in Will County have doubled.
Overall, Cook County deaths have decreased by 16 percent over the 10-year period:
• White women were the only demographic group that experienced increasing heroinrelated
deaths in Cook County from 1998 to 2008 (40 percent increase).
“We need to start making progress on all of these fronts if we are to reverse the tide of what is becoming a widespread problem,” said Kane-Willis.