The coming plague?

By Tyler Vincent

“K-Town,” a neighborhood in Chicago near Franklin Park, is infamous for its prominent drug trade.

In increasing numbers, youth from the suburbs are heading into K-town to buy heroin.

“They have unlimited amounts down there. Once I bought 85 blow at 10 bucks a piece. I’ve only done that once. I was averaging 10 blow for a 100 bucks a day.”

These are the words of “Jim,” a former heroin addict who grew up in suburban Chicago. Since beginning his habit in high school, he’s experienced everything from a two-and-a-half week stay in jail to a near-fatal overdose this summer in the DeKalb area. He is in his early 20s.

Jim, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, reflects the changing face of the traditional heroin addict — moving from the prevailing stereotype of an older, low-income, undereducated working class user to a younger and more affluent addict.

Recent news coverage reports suburban teenagers and those, like Jim, who travel downtown to places like K-town to pick up “blows” (one-tenth of a gram of heroin) then back to the suburbs.

“They’re working every street corner,” Jim said. “They start yelling out ‘Blows’ or ‘Rocks’ and you pull over and tell them how much you want.”

The changing trend in heroin usage begs the question: Can problems similar to those in communities like Wheaton and Glen Ellyn occur in DeKalb?

Some say it already has.

‘The heroin problem is here’

Dr. John Jackson is the manager of adult services at the Ben Gordon Center in DeKalb, which offers treatment for a variety of health and substance abuse issues. Jackson said the treatment center is seeing more people for heroin addiction treatment.

“The heroin problem is here already,” Jackson said, adding that it has gone from averaging a handful of people per year to a few dozen in the last year alone.

He added that about half of the few dozen were NIU students, while others are from other locations, including DeKalb.

The habit can get serious, costing some people $350 a day.

“But that’s like the worst,” Jackson added. “On average, it’s about $150 to $200.”

On campus, Alli Glore, the substance abuse specialist at NIU’s Counseling and Student Development Center, has dealt with the new problem.

“A handful of people have come in for heroin, which surprises me,” Glore said. “The stereotype of college students drinking and smoking marijuana is over. Students are getting harder drugs and not a lot of people know that.”

While the heroin problem may be creeping into the treatment centers, similar numbers aren’t being reflected by the North Central Narcotics Task Force, which handles cases involving drugs for DeKalb police and Kishwaukee Hospital.

The reason for the gap between numbers may be found in Jim’s testimonial that the heroin trade in DeKalb is almost non-existent.

“They have to drive into the city if they want anything,” he said.

Task force Sgt. Jim Winters said his department hasn’t seen a recent increase in heroin possession.

“We get a couple of cases a year,” he said. In those cases, he added heroin was not the only drug found on the person arrested. Winters said the people involved ranged in age from early 20s to older addicts who were below the poverty line.

“There is always a concern, especially younger people who are experimenting with it,” he said. “It’s not as prevalent as it is in the city and the collar counties, but we are aware that it’s growing.”

Sharon Emanuelson, community relations director at Kishwaukee Hospital, reports the same low numbers.

“We have a very low occurrence of heroin overdoses and have not seen trends up or down,” she said.

Why they use

Traditionally, those who experiment with drugs tend to shy away from heroin because it includes needle use. Glore said most people who use heroin smoke it rather than inject it.

“There is a stigma about IVs and needles because of AIDS,” she said.

With the increasing popularity of smoking or snorting heroin, the needle has become more of an option rather than a requirement. Heroin that can be smoked has a higher purity, ranging up to 90 percent.

Current drug trends favor a rise in heroin usage. The quality of heroin has increased and cost has gone down. Also, access has gotten easier.

DuPage County is at the center of the new wave of new heroin users. There, Paul Teodo serves as administrator of Behavioral Health Services at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.

Teodo began noticing a difference about four years ago in the type of heroin addicts who needed rehabilitation or were delivered to an emergency room.

“They were younger and more affluent,” Teodo said. “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for us to see 17 to 18-year-olds with six months to two years experience with heroin.”

While some of the new users know the addictive capacity of heroin, most don’t realize it until it’s too late.

“There is a certain percentage [of users] that do [know heroin is addictive], but they don’t care,” he said. “But many of them said, ‘I got in way over my head before I knew it, and then I

wanted more and more.'”

He added that while heroin was on the rise in the western suburbs, alcohol abuse is the biggest substance abuse problems for people in their teens and early 20s.

Glore added that another gateway into heroin addiction is prescription drugs.

“I’ve seen students who use it after being prescribed something by a doctor and when the doctor stopped prescribing that, they go to heroin,” she said.

Glore added that in the cases she’s seen, heroin is not the only drug the person uses.

“They are also doing things like Special K, coke, pot or alcohol,” she said. “You’re going to have a very hard time finding an addict who only uses heroin.”

Glore, Jackson and Teodo agree that the majority of new users first experiment with the drug for recreational purposes then find themselves locked into a habit.

“A lot of my friends were doing it,” Jim said. “I didn’t think think anything of it. Then, I was at a buddy’s house one day and I was bored, so I took some. They thought I smoked it before and they gave me a lot. What still attracts me about it is … when you do it, you feel like you’re melting. You’re totally and completely mellow. Your head is, like, lifted. You got no worries.”

Jim added that after two months of off-and-on usage, he developed a full-blown habit.

An expensive habit

As a person’s addiction to heroin grows, so does the need for money to feed it.

Teodo said patients have various ways of getting cash for their new-found addiction, including performing sexual favors and stealing from family and friends.

“I would skim money from the fast food place where I worked, but I never stole from friends,” Jim said. “I was one of the only ones with a sense of morals.”

His friends, however, were a different story.

“They car-hopped [where a car is broken into and items inside are taken and sold for cash], pawned everything they owned,” he said. “They’d steal credit cards and checkbooks to get the


Similar newspaper reports say that younger users steal and pawn things from friends and family such as TVs and stereo systems to get cash for the habit.

Trying to escape the drug garners harsh side effects, Jim added.

“You get sick,” he said. “Your pupils get bigger. Your muscles ache. You can’t sleep. You sweat. You feel like you’re going to die.”

Other symptoms of heroin withdrawal include shakes, diarrhea and vomiting.

Choosing a different path

Since his near-fatal overdose earlier this year, Jim has remained clean.

“Every single person I know that did it is either in jail or dead,” Jim said. “It messed up everything in my life. I was in the court system for three years.”

To prospective users, he offered words of advice.

“I’d tell them to go to Cook County Jail first and see where you’re going to end up if you get popped. And don’t think it’s not going to happen because it always does. Go see the parents of someone who died from it. I’d tell the parents, you know, if your kid is messing around with it, to not give him a second chance. Send him away [to rehab].”