Heroin has put Dave Admire’s family through hell, but now he’s hoping to be an angel for other families.
Admire’s son, Brad, was 17 when he was injured playing sports at school. He ended up having surgery on his shoulder, and the doctors prescribed an opiate-based pain pill.
“He was taking those and the prescription ran out, but by then he was addicted,” Admire said.
So Brad started buying the pills on the streets. It grew expensive, and eventually someone pointed out to him a drug that was much cheaper: heroin.
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Three months later, Brad came to his father and confessed.
“I had no idea up to that point,” said Admire, of Madison County. “He was in a rut and didn’t know what to do. He’d been using heroin for three months. I had him in treatment the very next day.”
But heroin doesn’t let go that easily. Brad, now 21, has been through five or six rounds of treatment, six months incarcerations and at least three overdoses. He’d go through rehab, but within days of release, he’d relapse, Admire said.
“It’s like that with a lot of them; it’s got such a hold on them,” he said. “It’s a disease of the brain. They can go to detox or a rehab facility, and they get off the actual drug, but the brain still craves it. They’ll do whatever they have to to get what they need.”
The heroin problem has been a primary focus for law enforcement, first responders, social services, schools and many others in the metro-east as heroin use has skyrocketed, especially in Madison County.
It’s a disease of the brain. They can go to detox or a rehab facility, and they get off the actual drug, but the brain still craves it. They’ll do whatever they have to to get what they need.
Dave Admire, the Angel Project
Madison County had a total of 77 drug-related deaths in 2015. Of those, 38 are confirmed as heroin overdoses and five more are suspected to be heroin-related, but toxicology tests are still pending.
That total is down significantly from last year’s total of 92 drug-related deaths. However, the 43 heroin deaths is nearly double last year’s total of 26 heroin deaths.
In 2009, there were just seven heroin deaths in Madison County.
“It is to say the least disappointing to see the heroin numbers rising as they did,” said Madison County Coroner Steve Nonn. “However, the numbers only parallel what is being seen nationally.”
In St. Clair County, there were 42 overdose deaths reported in 2015, of which 16 were related to heroin; three cases are still awaiting toxicology test results. That’s a slight decrease from 47 overdose deaths in 2014 including 13 heroin overdoses.
Admire is trying to start a new initiative: The Angel Project. He’s reached out to local law enforcement in the hopes that addicts coming in to seek help would not be charged with possession if they turn in their drugs, and instead the police would call his group to assist them in finding treatment.
Thousands die from heroin nationwide
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, about 8,200 Americans die of a heroin overdose each year. The group states that about 75 percent of heroin addicts began with an addiction to a legally prescribed drug, and switched to heroin when cut off from the prescription, or when the pills became too expensive.
In addition, the society estimates that the number of opioid prescriptions written to young people ages 15-29 has doubled between 1994 and 2007. Nearly one in 20 high school seniors has taken Vicodin, a powerful opioid.
“For the majority of them, their addiction started at the doctor’s office,” Admire said. “They’re getting pain pills for dental surgery or broken bones. Not too many of them just up and decided to try heroin one day.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that since 1999, deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses have gone up 265 percent for men and 400 percent for women. Heroin use has doubled over the last 10 years in young adults, with a 286 percent increase in heroin-related overdose deaths since 2002.
The new heroin is more addictive and more dangerous.
St. Clair County deputy coroner Daniel Haskenhoff said that 30 years ago, street heroin was about 50 percent pure. Now it’s 80 to 90 percent pure, and it’s cheaper:. A “button,” which can be ingested and does not have to be injected, is only $10. Often it is cut with fentanyl, an extremely powerful painkiller that is usually prescribed for terminal cancer patients.
And the entry via prescription drugs means that it doesn’t discriminate; all races, genders, ages and socioeconomic backgrounds seem to be affected. “It’s not a back-alley drug like it used to be,” Haskenhoff said.
In response to the growing heroin problem, Madison County leaders created the Heroin Task Force, which has been meeting for nearly two years in an attempt to bring law enforcement, treatment providers, educators and social workers together on this issue.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said despite the disappointing numbers, he feels the task force has been instrumental in raising the level of awareness about a problem that many didn’t realize was rising only a few years ago.
“That took a lot of work, and I think we have reached a level where a significant portion of the community understands this is a real problem happening in their community,” Gibbons said. “There was a 20-year gap when heroin and opiates weren’t even discussed. All the while the problem was growing in the United States … and no one was talking about it.”
They’re certainly talking about it now. The organizations involved with the task force have spoken to more than 20,000 students, focusing on fifth grade through high school in an attempt to stem the tide of young people from all walks of life being drawn into opiate addiction, Gibbons said.
“We let them know the harm that it does and the consequences, so they’re armed with the information to make good decisions,” he said.
On the law enforcement side, heroin-related prosecutions in Madison County are up 77 percent over 2014. It’s impossible to say whether that increase is because of greater enforcement or because of the increased heroin use, Gibbons said. “But I know law enforcement is trained on this; they’re dealing with it very actively,” he said.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly could not be reached for comment on the state of heroin use in his county.
400 Percent increase in drug overdose deaths among women since 1999
286 Percent increase in heroin overdose deaths nationally since 2002
Gibbons said one of the biggest failures in fighting opioids such as heroin and prescription narcotics has been a “failure to address this as a medical issue.” There’s plenty of resources being applied on the criminal side, he said, but not enough detox clinics and treatment beds. Health insurance coverage addresses all addictions the same way, but the kind of treatment needed for heroin addiction is very different than alcohol or cocaine.
“Heroin is a different ballgame,” Gibbons said. “You can’t treat it like alcoholism. It just doesn’t work.”
In addition, Gibbons said, doctors are limited by federal law on how many addicts they can treat. He said he has spoken with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin about getting that problem fixed. “You have more patients than you have doctors,” he said.
That availability of treatment is something that Admire has fought over the past few years. It started with a friend of his son’s, one who also was struggling with heroin and wanted to be free of it. Admire helped him find treatment, and two years later, he’s getting 5-10 calls a week from people needing help. Now he works with a volunteer organization to help families navigate the treatment system.
That’s what’s really needed, Admire said: low-cost residential treatment beds. “More money is supposed to be coming in to help, but I’ve got kids on waiting lists right now,” he said.
Brent Cummins, director of adult treatment for Chestnut Health, said residential treatment is “pretty scarce.” Their facility is in Bloomington and has a waiting list; the Gateway Foundation has a facility in Caseyville, and short of that, clients have to go to Chicago or further to find immediate help, he said.
An addict who wants to break free first has to “detox,” getting the drug out of his or her system, Cummins said. That’s only a few days, though, and the best situation is to go straight from medical detox to rehab. Sometimes the wait list is eight weeks or longer. So Chestnut provides outpatient therapy and sometimes medication such as Suboxone, which helps reduce the physical cravings while they wait for space in residential treatment. Other drugs, such as Vivitrol, are useful but harder to get.
“The issue is that it’s very expensive,” Cummins said. Medicaid is working on getting it covered, he said, but insurance companies typically want the client to have “failed” on another drug before trying it. “Our concern is that failure for our patients can be a fatal overdose,” he said.
So part of the problem is availability, and another part is paying for the treatment. Cummins said the state budget crisis in Illinois has limited how much they can offer, and when it is available, it can cost between $500 and $1,000 a day without insurance. “Unfortunately the insurance companies are pretty stingy about what they will provide,” he said.
Privacy laws cloud the big picture
Gibbons said the task force has no way of knowing how big the problem is except for the death rate. Medical privacy laws do not allow it to track how many doses of Narcan, an anti-overdose medication, have been administered, not even the total number in a region or at a hospital, much less down to the patient level.
“Fortunately as of Jan. 1, there’s a new law that should make access to that information available,” Gibbons said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get that information and know how many overdose reversals are happening, if there are concentrated pockets of activity, to try to help us understand the scope of it.”
In the meantime, all state troopers have been trained to use Narcan and carry it in their squad cars, Gibbons said, and many municipal police departments are getting training on it as well.
As for Admire’s plan of averting prosecution in exchange for addicts turning in their drugs, the idea is not as simple as it seems, according to Edwardsville Police Chief Jay Keeven. He said he’d shared Admire’s proposal with his senior staff, but waiving prosecution isn’t a promise they can make.
“The odds of a true heroin addict showing up for help when they still have heroin in hand are slim to none,” Keeven said. “We would certainly help anyone who is seeking help, carrying or not… but (this) could put us in a bind. If someone gets stopped, they just have to claim, ‘I need help,’ and then they wouldn’t get charged. … I don’t want to throw cold water on the Angel Project. I know this man’s heart is true and he’s trying to do good.”
The task force will continue, perhaps partnered with other groups or widening its scope. Gibbons said there are a lot of people working on parts of the problem, and they need to find a way to coordinate efforts on a larger scale. “That’s something I’m excited about,” he said.
Admire said more treatment is needed, but he believes prevention efforts for kids as young as fifth grade will have the biggest impact.
Heroin is a different ballgame. You can’t treat it like alcoholism. It just doesn’t work.
Tom Gibbons, Madison County state’s attorney
“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers and parents who think they don’t have a problem,” he said. “Most parents think, ‘My kid would never do that.’ I thought there was absolutely no way my kid would do heroin. ... I got into the game a little late.”
So Admire’s advice for parents: Talk to your kids about drugs, and keep communication open. Talk to them about what to avoid, and what to do if they mess up and use drugs anyway. “I think that’s a big part of it,” he said. “Brad was scared to come to me.”
Nonn said the county will continue its drug take-back days to prevent prescription drugs and opioids from falling into the wrong hands, and school presentations to try to prevent drug experimentation among young people. “Hopefully, we can plant seeds today that will bear fruit tomorrow,” he said.
So far, Brad is doing well. Admire was fed up with the 30-day limit on rehab in Illinois and sent him to a 60-day program in Florida, which was followed by two months in a halfway house for sober living with outpatient therapy.
“Today he’s good,” Admire said, “but you never know what tomorrow will bring.”
History of metro-east heroin deaths
- Madison County: 77 drug overdose deaths, including 43 confirmed or suspected heroin overdoses
- St. Clair County: 42 drug overdose deaths, including 19 confirmed or suspected heroin overdoses
- Madison County: 92 drug overdose deaths, including 26 heroin overdoses
- St. Clair County: 47 drug overdose deaths, including 14 heroin overdoses
- Madison County: 53 drug overdose deaths, including 23 heroin overdoses
- St. Clair County: 29 drug overdose deaths, including 13 heroin overdoses
- Madison County: 62 drug overdose deaths, including 21 heroin overdoses
- St. Clair County: 48 drug overdose deaths, including 15 heroin overdoses
- Madison County: 53 drug overdose deaths, including 26 heroin overdoses
- St. Clair County: 39 drug overdose deaths, including 13 heroin overdoses