Driving down the Eisenhower expressway toward Chicago, you take the exit at Austin, go two streets down, make a right, stick your arm out the window with a $20 bill, and purchase heroin. It’s that easy.
The heroin highway is typically referred to the Eisenhower expressway, where suburban teenagers are traveling to the west side of Chicago to obtain heroin.
To address this issue and spread awareness, Wauconda High School’s guidance department hosted a Heroin Highway presentation Nov. 27. Speakers discussed the dangers of heroin and its growing use by those in Chicago’s suburban communities. Some speakers also shared personal experiences of heroin addiction.
“When asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up,’ nobody says they want to be like this,” Sgt. Tom Bender of the Wauconda Police Department said as he presented a slide with a picture of a heroin user on it. “They don’t plan on it, but it happens.”
Heroin, according to the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association, is a white powdery mix or a brown tar-like substance derived from the opium poppy. Both forms are highly addictive and are a potentially lethal depressant. Heroin can be smoked, snorted or injected.
According to Special Agent Owen Putnam, who has been with the Drug Enforcement Administration for 23 years, Mexico, the second largest producer of heroin in the world, produced approximately 50 metric tons of heroin in 2009, most of which was destined for America.
The National Drug Information Center assesses that the Mexican criminal organizations control the distribution of most of the heroin in the United States.
“Chicago is one of the largest metropolitan areas,” Putnam said. “We have everything. We have great airports, a great railway system, a great interstate system, the cartels make use of all of those assets that we have.”
“The other thing is it’s a toxic mix,” Putnam continued. “There are 80,000 to 100,000 identified gang members in the Chicagoland area. And that’s how most of the heroin is getting out to the streets. Gangs have expanded in the suburbs and they have entered into a relationship with the cartels and are putting it on the streets.”
In a 2010 Roosevelt University study, the Chicago metropolitan area ranked the worst in heroin-related problems in the nation. Just in Lake County, deaths increased by 130 percent from 2000 to 2009. “In Chicago, the death rate has decreased. So where has the death rate increased?” said Linda Lewaniak, director of The Center for Addiction Medicine and Director of Outpatient Programs at Alexian Brothers Behavior Health Hospital. “The suburbs. It’s coming here.”
And the range of heroin users in the suburbs is not only becoming greater, but younger. The national average age of heroin users is 21-years-old, Lewaniak said. In the Chicagoland area the average age is 18.
According to Gateway Foundation Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center, heroin is one of the most frequently reported drugs by medical examiners in drug abuse deaths. In 2001, 84 cases investigated by the Lake County Coroner’s Office were a direct result of substance abuse, according to Lake County Coroner’s report. Of those, 35 deaths were heroin-related.
“Heroin, of all the drugs, really scares me,” Bender said. “I actually sometimes talk to these people that I arrest, and they’re not looking to get high, they’re just trying to keep the sick away, because it’s so physically addictive to the body that it’s awful to see. Time and time again, they can’t get clean. It’s scary.”
Sayra Stom, vice-president and co-founder of the Jeremy Stom Remembrance Foundation, began her presentation with a poem: “Hello, my name is Heroin,” Stom read. “I destroy homes, tear families apart, take your children, and that’s just the start.”
Stom lost her younger brother Jeremy when he was just 18-years-old to a drug overdose on April 25, 2009. On May 5 of the following year, heroin took her older brother, John, at the age of 27. “I wish that I could stand here and tell you that I know for a fact that if we had done something differently, my brothers would still be alive today,” Stom said. “Some people will claim that tough love is the key, while others might say tolerance and patience is the answer. But the truth is, there is no right answer. This is an epidemic. Drugs do not discriminate. And no family is immune to this disease.”
Throughout her speech, Stom recalled the fear she would become overwhelmed with every time one of her brothers would leave the house, that she may never see them again. With the fear, came anger at them for hurting themselves and their family.
“I would think to myself, ‘Why can’t they just stop? Why can’t they see what this drug is doing to them, to our family? Shouldn’t that be enough?’” Stom said. “I was so angry because I didn’t truly understand the severity of the disease back then. I thought they were just being selfish and didn’t actually want to be helped. I know now that this way of thinking is common misconception and stereotyping of people with addictions.”
About a year after her older brother, John, passed away, Stom and her parents began the Jeremy Stom Remembrance Foundation to sponsor and empower under-resourced adolescents between the ages of 13-18 with limited opportunities to participate in recreational activities. “We believe that by giving kids an opportunity to find relief from the stress of adolescence, it will help prevent them from turning to drugs,” Stom said.
Devin Reed, a recovering drug addict, spoke to the audience about his journey to recovery.
As an eighth grader, Reed began smoking marijuana with his friends. By the end of his freshman year in high school, he was addicted to cocaine.
“Most people were just partying and having fun. But me, there was something different,” Reed said. “My friends could party on the weekends, gulp down some beers and maybe chew a little cocaine and they’d be okay. I couldn’t. I’d sneak a little to the side, whatever it took, so I could consistently do it during the week.”
When Reed was 18, he cut off the right three digits of his right hand at the knuckle, requiring them to be surgically reattached. He was prescribed pain medication to deal with his recovery.
After three months of taking the medication, he became addicted to it.
“But one day my prescriptions ran out, and my body wanted it,” Reed said.
“So, I was with some people in Lake Zurich and thought they were doing (the pain drug) which I didn’t think was a big deal since I had already been taking them for a while. So I snorted what I believed to be (the pain drug).”
Instead, it was heroin. “ And I’d never felt better in my whole life,” Reed said. “Within four days, I was a consistent user.”
Reed quickly became familiar with the heroin highway as a means of feeding his deadly habit.
“All I had to do was go about 30 minutes down 290, get off at one of three exits, either Austin, Cicero, or Independence, go about a block and a half down the road, maybe sometimes even right on the on-ramp or off-ramp, and I bought heroin in the open-air drug market. Of you just ask a homeless person where it is; they’ll tell you the good spots. You don’t have to go far.”
“The day before Christmas Eve, I had about 650 dollars in my pocket to go Christmas shopping. Well, I grinched Christmas; nobody got a gift that year because I was driving to the store and I was going past Gators on Dundee, and I thought, ‘Oh, my old drug dealer used to live around here. Maybe I can just do two bags and one rock.’ That was my idea. ‘Two bags and one rock.’ I spent 600 dollars and ended up overdosing the same night.”
By that New Years, Reed was committed to staying sober. Going through inpatient rehab, a halfway house, a three-quarter house, and sober-living, Reed spent over nine months in treatment. Today, he is involved in a 12-step recovery program and “Hearts of Hope,” an organization committed to restoring hope to those affected by drug addiction through education, advocacy, and support.
Both Stom and Reed warn against the stereotype of heroin as being a back alley drug.
“If we want to beat this disease,” Stom argues, “We need to start by getting rid of the stigma that people with addictions are bad people from bad families, living in bad neighborhoods. It’s simply not true.”
Like Stoms’ two brothers, Reed grew up in a stable suburban home.
“I didn’t come from a broken home,” Reed said. “My parents are going on their 30th anniversary this week. Growing up, I wasn’t raised bad in any way. My parents did everything it took.”
Michelle Hines, who’s son is a recovering addict, is terrified at the epidemic occurring in the suburbs. According to Hines, Lake Zurich has seen seven kids, ages 18-24, die due to heroin overdose in a three-year period. To Hines, the issue is one of stereotyping. If stigmas are broken and parents become educated to the problem, lives can be saved, she believes.
Both Hines and Lea Minalga, another parent of a recovering heroin addict, urge parents to speak with their children. “Speak early and often,” Hines suggested. “From the time they’re tots, start talking to them about drugs and alcohol, age appropriately, of course,” Minalga added. “With my son, I had two good talks with him about drugs and alcohol when he was about 16, way too late. And I thought I had done my duty and I was a good mom, and I was a good mom, I just didn’t know much about that. It should be a conversation. It shouldn’t be a lecture. It should be ongoing over the years. The second you sense something is wrong, it is wrong. Seek help immediately. Attack it head-on. You want to investigate. And get your kid an assessment right away. I do believe in drug testing teenagers. I would do things a lot differently now that I’ve learned a lot.”
Through presentations such as the event held at Wauconda High School, young adults and parents alike can educate themselves on the dangers of heroin. For Reed, each time he approaches the microphone, despite his fear of public speaking, is a chance to save at least one young life.
“My goal is to help one person not have to go through what I’ve seen my friends go through… I went to six funerals last winter, all of my best friends, all under the age of thirty. I’ve been to 24 funerals in the last five years, and everybody lived in the suburbs of Chicago, all under the age of 30.”