Madison County leaders hope a task force of community leaders, law enforcement, educators, health care providers and stakeholders on both sides of the river will make a dent in the county's heroin problem.
"Heroin is a drug problem unlike any other we have faced, and we all recognize that we can't arrest our way out of it," Madison County Sheriff Bob Hertz said Thursday. "After three years of working hard fighting against the damage caused by heroin addiction, recent tragic deaths prove there is still much work to be done."
Hertz and Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons said they decided to form the task force after three people died of suspected heroin overdoses in a six-hour period last week. Katie Heavey, Dearold Oseland and Paul Simpson were each found dead in their homes with evidence of drug usage at each scene, all between the hours of 9:45 p.m. Feb. 13 and 2:49 a.m. Feb. 14.
Toxicological studies are pending, according to Coroner Steve Nonn, but they have strong indications that heroin overdose may be the eventual determination.
The task force will bring together county leaders with U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton, local law enforcement, addiction treatment providers, health care leaders, drug court representatives and legislators -- what Gibbons referred to as "the many spokes of the wheel" to combat heroin in Madison County. They will meet in a closed organizational meeting next week, and hold the first public session on March 7.
"I am looking forward to bringing together individuals from a diverse group that will help us develop the best available intelligence about the heroin problem and develop a realistic plan of action," Gibbons said.
DRIVING FORCES BEHIND HEROIN
Hertz and Gibbons said there seems to be no common denominator among heroin addicts: they come from all races, backgrounds and socioeconomic levels.
Hertz said he talked to a 35-year-old man currently incarcerated at Madison County Jail about his heroin addiction, and was told a familiar story: Five years before, the man, whom he did not name, had been in a car accident and was given painkillers. He became addicted to them, but did not have health insurance to get more.
So the man went to St. Louis, where a dealer gave him two hits of heroin for free. "He told me the dealer said, 'You'll be back.'"
Indeed he was, since a dose of heroin cost only $5. By the time he was arrested on charges of theft to feed his habit, he was doing up to seven doses a day, liquified and injected.
But it doesn't start that way: the concentrated heroin currently available can be smoked, inhaled or even swallowed to achieve its effect, because it is three times the potency of the heroin generally available prior to 2000. That ease of ingestion makes young people think it isn't as serious a drug, Hertz said.
That super-concentrated form makes it highly addictive, Nonn said -- the rate of relapse after rehabilitation is extremely high. "It's a very hard drug to kick," Nonn said.
In some places, it has become even more lethal. Recently the Pittsburgh, Pa., area has been plagued with a heroin batch laced with fentanyl, a potent synthetic pain reliever sometimes prescribed to cancer patients. When combined with heroin, it becomes a lethal cocktail that has killed at least 23 people in recent weeks in that region.
Nonn said investigators do not know yet whether the local heroin has been contaminated with fentanyl. If it turns out to be the case, it should be a warning, he said.
"Can you imagine if this was 26 deaths from the swine flu? We'd have ABC News here and I'd be on the national news," Nonn said. "Heroin doesn't get the same attention as the flu, so we need to tell people that we have a problem here."
In 2009, there were eight deaths from heroin overdose in Madison County. Two years later it was 26 deaths. That spring, Gibbons announced an effort to step up enforcement. Raids and arrests increased, and his office began prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases regularly: charging the people who provided the heroin with the deaths of those who overdosed.
Currently there are at least two pending cases of drug-induced homicide in Madison County. But these cases are not always successful: last month Angela Halliday was found not guilty of aggravated battery after having been accused of injecting a 29-year-old woman with heroin. The woman overdosed, but was revived by paramedics.
Halliday was on parole at the time, having pleaded guilty to lesser charges in the heroin deaths of two people, including her boyfriend.
"What we've learned is that we've had successes, but obviously there's a lot to be done," Gibbons said.
But Hertz said arrests alone won't solve the problem. "There's so much money in it, arresting one dealer means two or three will step up to take his place," he said. "It's not realistic to keep 100 percent of heroin out of this country."
Instead, Gibbons and Hertz said they want to focus on the demand side, while working with St. Louis officials on the supply.
"I have two young sons, and from the point of view of a father, I see this as an unacceptable circumstance," Gibbons said. "We've made some really great strides ... but what we're seeing is that more needs to be done."
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Gibbons said this task force would not be one that develops a report and does nothing with it. "You have to talk to arrive at a solution," he said.
State leaders announced earlier this week that they have created a task force to address the epidemic of heroin use across Illinois.
State Speaker of the House of Representatives Michael Madigan appointed state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, to lead the panel which will hold public hearings in Chicago and its suburbs this spring with plans to use the information to pass "bold legislation" to fight heroin.
Gibbons said they will invite Madison County state legislators to join them, in the hopes of working with them on a solution. While he said he was happy to share information with St. Clair County officials, he said they are focusing first on Madison County's problem.
They also hope to hear from recovering addicts and their families as well. That's sometimes difficult, Gibbons said: "You won't find many prior heroin addicts willing to talk," he said.
But their information could be helpful in finding ways to stop heroin addiction from risking more lives, they said.
"(Families) have told me that the hardest call they ever make is the one to the police, but it's the most important call," Gibbons said. "It doesn't have to be the end of the opportunities in their lives."
That focus also will include prescription drugs, which kill many more people each year in the metro-east than heroin. In 2011, a Belleville News-Democrat investigation found that drug overdoses were killing more metro-east residents than car crashes. About 70 percent of young overdose victims died of abusing opioids, which includes heroin and prescription painkillers.
Gibbons said that every single heroin addict to whom he had spoken said that prescription drugs were their gateways to heroin, like the prisoner that Hertz had interviewed.
Gibbons said while they will work with treatment and prevention, he intends to keep up the enforcement side as well.
"We cannot as a society say that it's OK to give drugs to people," he said. "We will continue to prosecute ... We will not win every battle, but we will not give up the fight."
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at email@example.com or 618-239-2507.