Which suburbs are heroin hot spots? The answer might surprise you

Medical Watch
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Drugs on your street. When we talk about the opioid epidemic – most people think “not in my backyard.” You might be surprised how close the drug problem is and how far the product traveled to get here.

This is the busiest border crossing in the world! The port of San Ysidro, just south of San Diego. Cars backed up every day from Tijuana. Sixty thousand vehicles go through -- some hollowed out holding illegal drugs.

“Every day, of course we see a lot of violations. Narcotics, heroin, fentanyl,” said Sidney Aki of US Customs and Border Protection.

Not just carried by Mexicans – 73-percent of busted drug traffickers are American citizens traveling across the border to bring drugs back, highly-addictive, illegal substances fueling the drug crisis in our country. Twenty thousand border protection agents attempt to put up road blocks on the drug trade. Heroin – which used to come from the Middle East – has now become booming business in Mexico.

“Daily. I would say approximately five to 12 loads are intercepted here at the port of entry daily. This year, to date, we have seen anywhere from 300 pounds of heroin entering the United States," said Aki. "Fentanyl, as you know roughly a hundred times stronger than heroin, roughly 75 pounds we have intercepted here.”

Specially trained dogs roam the pre-screening area. If they get a hit, cars are searched more extensively, by hand and using specialized x-ray equipment to find carefully hidden contraband before it gets into California – considered the heroin transit zone.

“The detailed drug trafficking organizations use a variety of methods. With regard to vehicles, we see it in the quarter panels," Aki said, "we see it in the rear panels. We see it in the tires, the tires affixed to the bottom of the vehicle, the roof, the floor, the gas tank, a whole variety of ways in which the drug trafficking organizations try to bring it into the United States.”

And as US demand increases, heroin seizures shoot up -- more than 200%.

Even in the driving rain, US Customs and Border Protection agents are here, trying to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the US. But for every car stopped, every smuggler arrested and drugs seized, more get through, cars driving north on the highways and drugs spreading out on the arteries all across the United States.

Motorcycle gangs, drivers in rental and private cars and commercial trucks deliver the drugs to dealers right here in Chicago, where people die every single day. The opioid crisis is not just a law enforcement burden but a healthcare drain as well.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County chief medical examiner said, “we have seen a huge increase in the number of opioid and opioid-related deaths in 2016 compared to 2015. We have seen a lot more in the Latino population. We are seeing them more often in the younger population. We have seen people who are in their 60’s dying.”

Heroin, made from opium poppy, is an old drug. In ancient writing samples – it was referred to as the ‘joy plant.’

“So clearly they knew a lot about opium in those days," said Dr Richard Miller, Northwestern Medicine drug researcher.

But it wasn’t until the 1800’s chemists legitimately harnessed the pain fighting power of opium poppy seeds in a lab.

“When you take the chemical molecule that is morphine, you can play around with it in different ways, you can make heroin out of it," said Dr Miller.

And like morphine, heroin was once widely administered – legally – as a pain reliever for patients with respiratory ailments. Scientists at German company Bayer, the aspirin maker, said the drug made them feel ‘heroisch!’ That’s where the name comes from. But today, pure heroin is not what’s selling on the streets.

Across the city, fentanyl-related deaths are higher in number than ever before. That’s because there’s a demand for more powerful heroin and dealers are maximizing profits by adding fentanyl – produced in a lab. Chief medical examiner Dr Ponni Arunkumar says her numbers show an 82 percent increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths.

“Fentanyl has a similar effect as heroin. It causes respiratory depression, but it’s more potent than heroin. It’s about 100 times more potent than heroin," said Dr Arunkumar.

Then there’s carfentanil – a drug 10-thousand times more potent than heroin, commonly used to tranquilize not humans … but elephants. Some drug dealers incorporate the highly dangerous substance in their batches, often without the buyer’s knowledge. Because of the highly poisonous additives, the common antidote, naloxone doesn’t always work.

Karen Flowers, associate special agent in charge, DEA Chicago Field Division said, “generally you thought that heroin overdose you’d need one administration of naloxone. If it’s fentanyl based, it’s 2, 3, 4 times.”

“And not as successful anymore?” asked Dina Bair.

“No. It’s frightening,” said Agent Flowers.

And it creates the need for more product and more money to fight the epidemic. Money the dealers are drowning in while their users die.

“This is a very serious problem. Opioid addiction is at the very least a life sentence. Every day is a challenge. Worst case scenario it is a death sentence,” said Agent Flowers:

The most deaths by far in Illinois are in Chicago.

“We see a lot of convergence of street dealing in the south and west side of Chicago,” said Agent Flowers.

Across the state just about every county is impacted by opioids, particularly heroin. Opiates kill more people than murder or car accidents. Even smaller counties light up with fatalities.

In DuPage County the coroner says the jump in overdoses was 53 percent from 2015 to 2016. Hot spots change every year from Lombard to Naperville to Addison to Oak Brook, the deaths are everywhere. In Cook County in the first half of last year alone, there was a nearly 100-percent jump. And in McHenry County, a 25-percent increase fueled by deaths in Woodstock, Crystal Lake, McHenry and Lake in the Hills. In Lake County the numbers were flat with about 35 to 40 people dying each year. The greatest activity was in Waukegan, but towns like Antioch, Round Lake, Mundelein, Vernon Hills and North Chicago were all impacted.

In the last decade – more people have used illegal drugs than ever before in American history. Since 2010, American heroin use has quadrupled.

“We are reaching numbers that in the last three wars the United States has been involved in, we are eclipsing those numbers. Prevention and treatment along with enforcement is the only way we are going to fight this battle," said Agent Flowers.

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