A common story that Lake County professionals say they hear over and over again goes something like this: A high school athlete suffers a sports injury and becomes hooked on the painkiller his or her physician prescribes. The young person looks elsewhere for the drug, often turning first to the medicine cabinet. Eventually, the addicted youth discovers that a $5 bag of heroin provides the same relief as a $40 or $50 bottle of pain pills purchased on the black market.
Initiatives to promote the safe disposal of unused pain medicine were among the strategies discussed by forum speakers, including State Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie). Lang led a bipartisan push in 2015 to enact a law that tackles the surge in heroin and opioid use. The measure, which Lang described as the most comprehensive piece of such legislation in the country, passed both chambers unanimously and survived a gubernatorial veto.
"We started with the notion that it was time we stopped incarcerating young people who were hooked on drugs, and spent more time treating them," said Lang, who headed a 39-legislator task force. "So the first thing we wanted to do was keep them out of jail, get them in treatment … and use the savings from the correctional system toward treatment."
The legislation creates a pharmaceutical drug disposal program effective in 2018, strengthens the state's drug courts and requires that pharmacies update patient drug records daily rather than weekly, Lang said. "We have many patients who go ER hopping," Lang said. "They go from one emergency room to the next and pile up prescriptions."
Members of the audience listen during the panel discussion of "Drug Dilemma: Parent, Professional and Community Response" on Dec. 8, 2016, at Highland Park High School.
Other panelists included Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim; Bruce Johnson, chairman of the Lake County Underage Drinking and Drug Prevention Task Force; and Mark Filler, who lost his son to a heroin overdose and is chairman of the Jordan Michael Filler Foundation. Other participants included Barbara de Nekker, executive director of Community – The Anti-Drug, a coalition in Highland Park, Deerfield and other towns within Township High School District 113. Also participating was Gus Pappadimas, a Highland Park High School psychologist.
Earlier in the day, the National Center on Drug Control Policy announced that heroin overdose deaths had increased 23 percent last year, from 10,574 in 2014 to 12,990 in 2015. Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids jumped from 5,544 in 2014 to 9,580 in 2015, an increase of 73 percent. The sharp rise in synthetic opioid deaths was fueled by fentanyl-related overdoses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
One of the first things we did county-wide was to put naloxone in the hands of our police officers," Nerheim said, of a drug that can quickly reverse the effects of an opiate overdose. He noted that while paramedics have long carried naloxone, "The reality is, if somebody calls 911, the police are almost always going to get there first by several minutes."
In two years, 128 lives have been saved in Lake County due to naloxone. But Nerheim said the county must do a better job of getting people into treatment. Often, people treated with the life-saving drug return to using after they're released from the hospital.
The state's attorney spoke of a new program called A Way Out that allows motivated addicts to report to one of seven police departments throughout the county to seek treatment, regardless of where they happen to live. The departments are Lake Forest, Libertyville, Mundelein, Grayslake, Gurnee, Round Lake Park and Round Lake Beach. Law enforcement personnel make the call to a treatment facility and transport them.
Nerheim said other police agencies are eager to participate, but it's important not to overextend the county's treatment capacity.
"We knew early on that the worst thing that could happen was if somebody says, 'OK, I'm going to give this thing a try,' and they walk in and we have to tell them, We have nowhere to send you," Nerheim said.
One question put to panelists was whether the legalization of medical marijuana was contributing to teens' perception that marijuana is not harmful.
Every adolescent that comes to us thinks that for some reason there are no harmful effects of marijuana," said Johnson, CEO of Nicasa Behavioral Health Services and chair of Lake County's underage drinking and drug task force. "Kids are smart. They look on the internet and many of the sites they find are pro-legalization. They can actually recite the information back to you."
Johnson said parents and educators need better and more factual information about the effects on adolescents. He said regular marijuana use during adolescence can lower IQ.
Lang, who helped shape the state's highly-regulated medical marijuana program, expressed doubt it had influenced teens' attitudes.
"I do think that many parents of our young people believe that marijuana is not all that harmful," Lang said, suggesting parents are more serious about cautioning teens against alcohol and opioids.
Community – The Anti-Drug has been awarded a $625,000, federal Drug Free Communities grant over five years to reduce alcohol and marijuana use in Highland Park, Deerfield, Highwood, Bannockburn and Riverwoods. De Nekker, the group's new executive director, advised parents to stress to their teens that drug and alcohol use is not the norm.
"The more our youth think their peers are using drugs and alcohol, the more likely they are to use them," de Nekker said. "Your teenager is not going to be ostracized for not using drugs or alcohol, because most of their peers aren't."
De Nekker attempted to dispel the idea among some parents that allowing teens to drink safely at home is preparing them to drink in moderation in college. She said research shows that students drink less in college if their parents have conveyed expectations they're not to drink.
"If you do allow them or their friends to drink at home, they're more likely to drink in other places and it leads to problem behaviors later," de Nekker said.