As an addiction treatment center in Lincoln Park, Chicago, we see trends in addiction first hand.  Although all addictions are heartbreaking, nothing has touched us as deeply as the current heroin epidemic among young people.  We have seen young adults in their late teens and early twenties struggling to recover from one of the most dangerous, addictive and life-threatening drugs.  It is a hard struggle – for both the addicts and their families.

We are writing this with the hope that more parents will recognize that there is a HUGE problem in our own backyards and it is affecting our children and their friends.  From what we have seen, no child is safe – cheerleader, athlete, straight-A college student, gifted and academically challenged – heroin addiction has affected them all.  It is truly an epidemic.

Some grim statistics:

1.  The Chicago metropolitan region ranks worst in the nation for heroin use and problems associated with heroin use.

2. More people die in Illinois from overdose than from accidents!

3. Heroin ranks as #2 (behind only alcohol) among substances that people seek treatment for in Illinois.

4. Overdose deaths in the Chicagoland area have increased exponentially with some surrounding counties seeing 100-150% increases in the number of yearly heroin-related deaths over the past 5 years.

5. In 2010, the Chicago area had 24,360 heroin-related emergency room visits, nearly double the 12,226 for New York City’s 5 boroughs.  Chicago’s rate of heroin-related emergency room visits per 100,000 people is the highest in the country.

6. Over 50 percent of heroin dependent persons will be dead before the age of 50, with the mean age of death being 30! (“Understanding Suburban Heroin Use” Illinois Consortium On Drug Policy and Roosevelt University)

7. Heroin use is now most common in Illinois among white, suburban middle and upper class youth.

What’s going on?  Why is heroin usage spiking in Chicago?  Several factors have fueled the current Chicago heroin epidemic:

Heroin Purity:  Heroin is much more pure.  Heroin is now typically 30%-50% pure, compared to less than 10% pure about 11 years ago.  Because the heroin has higher purity, it looks like cocaine.  Also, higher purity heroin can be snorted or smoked to get the same high that required injection a few years ago.

Cheap:  There is a substantially more heroin in Chicago.  Heroin from Mexico has increased exponentially while Afghanistan has once again become the world’s largest heroin producer.  As a major transportation hub, Chicago has been flooded with cheaper higher quality heroin.

Vicodin and Oxycontin Use as Gateway:  Opiate-based painkillers have increasingly become the gateway to heroin use and addiction.  Young adults frequently start out by using prescription painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin.  When prescription drugs become too expensive or too difficult to get, the young adults begin using heroin, often by smoking or snorting.  (They falsely believe it is less addictive to snort or smoke heroin which is completely untrue!)  Often within weeks or months, they are shooting heroin intraveniously.

Cocaine Use as Gateway:  The other primary gateway to heroin use is cocaine.  As mentioned above, today’s higher purity heroin looks like cocaine; it can be snorted or smoked.  Because of these perceived similarities to cocaine, young adults are increasingly moving from cocaine use to heroin use.  Heroin is cheaper, so as drug use increases and money becomes tight, young adults begin to use heroin.

Willingness to try:  Young people in Chicago frequently believe that they can just “try” heroin.  They often equate heroin with opiate-based prescription drugs.  They see these prescription drugs in the medicine cabinet and have a false sense of safety.  They also don’t receive adequate heroin-specific education while in school and don’t understand the grave risks of heroin use.

Caution for Parents:  DO NOT believe that your young adult is immune from using heroin.  It is an epidemic.  If you suspect heroin use, GET HELP IMMEDIATELY.

Heroin usage is not a phase.   It is one of the world’s most highly addictive substances.  Estimates vary, but it is believed that up to 25% of individuals trying heroin once become addicted.

Do not let shame or guilt stop you from getting help for your young adult – quickly.  With the median age of death for heroin addicts at 30, realize that death from heroin is inevitable unless the addict gets treatment.

New Hope Recovery Center is experienced handling heroin addiction.  Please contact us at 773-883-3916 or via email at info@new-hope-recovery.com if someone you love is addicted to heroin or you suspect is using heroin.

By Jeff Zacharias LCSW CAADC RDDP