Coroner Steve Nonn and Michael Shah, of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, have seen more than enough to know a heroin epidemic has hit Madison County and is getting worse.
As elected officials, Nonn said, "Our jobs are to announce as loudly as we can: We have a problem."
Heroin use crosses social, economic, racial and age barriers, Nonn said in his part of the presentation at the first public meeting of the Madison Country Heroin Task Force on Friday. He told the gathering of about 50 that county officials heard the epidemic was coming to the county in 2006, when three died of heroin overdose. By 2009 it was seven; and so far in 2014 his office has recorded seven suspected heroin overdose deaths.
Those seven are pending toxicology results, Nonn said, but the circumstances, including drug paraphernalia, strongly indicate heroin overdose as the causes of death. The county is "stepping up" by treating suspected overdose deaths the same as homicide deaths: locking down the scene, getting search warrants and, when possible, prosecuting suppliers.
Chris Becker, associate principal at Highland High School, said educators are working with Madison County officials to reduce drug use by children. The goal is to be "preventative and proactive," he said, saying leaders at Highland middle and high schools talk to students about prescription drugs and heroin.
"It's not gonna go away, but we're going to do everything we can," Becker said, while declining to speak specifically about drug incidents at the schools.
Becker said the elementary schools in Highland also have anti-drug programs, but the programs specific to heroin use need to be toned down before being presented to that age group.
"This is going to continue," Shah said, citing the billion-dollar illegal drug trade. Heroin is highly addictive, and users will "choose it over their family." Shah's nephew is a heroin addict, he said, and is not using now only because he is locked up.
Shah, an intelligence analyst with the DEA, said parents need to be snoops.
"There is no expectation of privacy for my teenagers," he said. Parents need to regularly check their child's room for drugs and paraphernalia, and the child's phone and social media.
"There are no pay phones anymore, the drug contacts are right there on their phones," Shah said, on the contact list and in their messages.
Both Nonn and Shah said parents need to be aware that heroin use often starts as prescription painkiller use and abuse. Many users are from good families, they said, with financial resources.
"Parents and grandparents, don't be an accidental drug dealer," Nonn said. The county offers a drug take-back program two or three times a year, resulting each time in a pickup load of drugs.
The prescription painkillers in medicine cabinets use similar pathways in the brain that heroin uses, Shah said.
And when a person who has been using prescription drugs -- either recreationally or legally from an injury -- can't get the prescription anymore then they can turn to illegal drugs, Nonn said. "Let's go get a button of heroin for $10. Cheaper than a movie."
But that one shot of heroin creates an addict. Shah explained that most addictive drugs follow a predictable path: recreational use becomes regular use becomes a user's life revolving around acquiring and using the drug. But not heroin, one use makes a person both physically and psychologically addicted.
Kicking the habit isn't nearly as rapid, Shah said. Research shows that a medical program to detox, combined with a psychological plan to assist the user, is best. "There is no short-term heroin treatment. It does not work," Shah said.
Debbie Anderson was among those at the forum. Her son, Tyler Anderson, was among the 21 heroin deaths in Madison County in 2012. He was 23.
"We missed all the signs," Anderson said. "We went through the whole thing with rehabs, and those are not working because they're throwing people with all kind s of addictions together." Tyler Anderson was being treated for alcohol and marijuana use at a rehabilitation center when he became friends with the person who later introduced him to heroin.
"I wish they would have had a forum like that a couple years ago," Anderson said. "Maybe we would have done things differently with our son."
Contact reporter Mary Cooley at email@example.com.
What to know
The Madison County Heroin Task Force was formed to study the effectiveness of past efforts and get information from the public to develop a plan to reduce addition. Some facts presented by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Michael Shah and Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn include:
* Heroin use often starts with prescription painkiller use and abuse. Even star athletes, Shah said, can get addicted to painkillers and then advance to heroin.
* Start talking to your children about drugs early -- in elementary school. "If they start using in sixth- or seventh-grade, we need to talk to them in fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grades," Shah said.
* The Good Samaritan law does apply those around a drug user, Nonn said. "Don't turn your back on your friends (in a drug overdose). Get them to a hospital, you will not be charged."
* Heroin is a powder or rock-like substance. Parents have told DEA agents that they saw the drug in their child's room, but didn't know it was heroin. Shah says most heroin in the metro-east is tan, white or a sandy substance.
* A heroin user will "nod," much like a sleepy person struggling to stay awake, Shah says. Be suspicious of an overly tired teenager who has had enough sleep.
* The drug trade from Mexico into the United States is a $65 billion a year business. "Do you think they're going to stop because they're worried about Madison County, Illinois?" Shah said. Drug cases are moving from the Mississippi River eastward, and the metro-east is ripe for drugs because of the highway access.