Illinois holds first-ever Heroin Abuse Awareness Day

A recovering heroin addict runs his hands through his hair before speaking at a church in Addison, Illinois, last year. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo)

 “Heroin is no longer a secret,” Illinois State Rep. Patti Bellock told dozens of lawmakers, community leaders and local advocates who gathered at the Robert Crown Center for Health and Education in suburban Chicago on Wednesday to commemorate the inaugural Illinois Heroin Abuse Awareness Day.

“Eight or nine years ago, I wasn’t worried about heroin,” said Bellock, who sponsored the resolution to make November 4th Heroin Abuse Awareness Day — an effort to raise awareness among Illinois residents, and parents in particular, about the dangers of heroin, the deadly drug at the center of a nationwide epidemic.

“When a close friend approached me, distraught because her son was addicted, I was shocked,” Bellock said. “People weren’t aware that heroin was a problem.”

The midwest, and the Chicagoland area specifically, have been among the regions hardest hit by the country’s current drug problem which, according to the CDC, has caused the rate of heroin-related deaths to nearly triple since 2010. 

For years after she first became aware of heroin's reach within her own county, Bellock said she and her team still referred to the drug as the “suburban secret” because of the stigma that long suppressed conversations about the drug’s impact on middle-to-upper-class families.

Chicago-area entrepreneur Roger Hruby was compelled to find a way to combat that stigma after his grandson died of an overdose in 2008. It was thanks to his generous donation that the Robert Crown Center, which has been providing suburban Chicago schools with health education programs since the 1970s, was able create one of the nation’s first heroin-specific prevention programs.

“My grandson was an amazing, beautiful young man. When he died, no one we knew had ever talked about heroin. We just thought, ‘How could that happen?’” Hruby said Wednesday. “People associated heroin with low-income Chicago, but when we investigated, we saw that it was appallingly widespread. ”

Yahoo News spotlighted the Robert Crown Center’s heroin prevention program in September. 

Although its programs are at the forefront of the fight against heroin abuse in Illinois, the Robert Crown Center’s prevention program tackled just a portion of the complex problem.

Steve Kamenicky, right, waits for Chicago Recovery Alliance volunteer Erin Scott to finish his paper work before he can get Naloxone during a CRA truck's weekly stop on 16th Street in Cicero, Illinois, July 17, 2013. (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

The Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University found that, in 2010, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs had more heroin-related hospital visits than any other major metropolitan region in the country. But a study released by the consortium in August revealed that, at the same time the state’s opioid abuse problem was growing, Illinois was actually scaling back on public addiction treatment.

According to the study, between 2007 and 2012, Illinois’s capacity for state-sponsored treatment went from ranking 28th in the nation to the third worst. 

The Heroin Crisis Act, a recent piece of bipartisan legislation, seeks to change that.

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Lou Lang, spoke Wednesday about the legislation, which requires expanding the state’s drug courts, equipping all police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders with opioid antidote naloxone. It also allows for naloxone to be administered in schools, bolstering the Illinois Department of Human Services’ prescription monitoring program, and requiring that the state’s Medicaid program cover the cost of heroin addiction treatment. 

In an interview with Yahoo News ahead of the press conference Wednesday, Lang said he began laying the groundwork for the bill last spring.

“I had read just one too many reports about heroin deaths, and one too many reports about drug addiction and really not too much [was] being done about it,” Lang said. “I started with the idea that we had to do something comprehensive or not do anything at all.”

“Admittedly, that is risky,” he added. “There’s a whole lot of people you have to deal with and negotiate with.”

Lang said Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat, put together a bipartisan task force of representatives who traveled the state and “heard from everyone you could think of: judges, prosecutors, parents, addicts, former addicts, insurance people, doctors.”

The resulting legislation passed the Illinois House and Senate in May but stopped short at the desk of Gov. Bruce Rauner, who wanted to get rid of the bill’s provision to cover heroin and opioid addiction treatment under Medicaid.

Amid an ongoing state budget crisis that, among other cuts, has forced many nonprofits to downsize their staffs, closed the Illinois State Museum system, and prevented the Illinois lottery from paying winners more than $600, Rauner argued that the state could not afford the added Medicaid costs. 

But, Lang said, he and his colleagues countered that by keeping addicts out of jail and emergency rooms, the provision would actually save the state $58 million a year. An overwhelming bipartisan majority of House lawmakers voted to override the governor’s changes, and the state Senate followed suit.

A variety of different types of heroin on display at the State Crime Lab at the Ohio Attorney General's headquarters of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation in London, Ohio. (Ty Wright for/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Illinois lawmakers aren’t the only ones taking a stand against opioid abuse. Over the past few months lawmakers in New Jersey, Kentucky, New York, Wisconsin and other states have passed several pieces of heroin-related legislation, and even more have been proposed.  

In August, the White House announced that the Office of National Drug Control Policy would dedicate $2.5 million to a new “heroin response strategy” aimed at treating addicts in 15 states in the Northeast. 

“People are coming to the realization that every community has a problem. Every school has a problem, ” Lang said at Wednesday’s press conference, noting that he’s been approached by representatives interested in passing similar legislation in other states.

“To not address it is irresponsible.”