DuPage OKs more funds to fight heroin problem

Packets of heroin  | Sun-Times Stock Photo
Packets of heroin | Sun-Times Stock Photo

With DuPage County deaths from heroin overdoses averaging one per week for 2013, the County Board is allocating additional funds to fight the problem.

Approved in the final fiscal year 2014 county budget was a $50,000 transfer from the Sheriff’s Department to the County Board for the purpose of educating the public about the dangers of a drug once considered to be primarily an inner city problem.

The transfer doubles the original allotment, for a total of $100,000 to fight a problem growing every year in scale and deadliness, county officials said.

“We’re not going to prosecute our way out of this, we’re going to educate our way out,” County Board member Grant Eckhoff, a Wheaton Republican, said.

The funds will be distributed to various groups throughout the county that help fight drug use, including the Regional Department of Education, churches and various community groups.

DuPage County has already seen 43 heroin overdose deaths in 2013, with another three or four likely to be determined to be caused by the drug after the DuPage Coroner’s Office finishes its investigation.

The number of heroin-related deaths is on the rise, with 25 in 2009, 29 in 2010, and 26 in 2011 and 38 in 2012.

Eckhoff stressed that the problem is one that cuts across all demographics, touching all racial, ethnic and age groups.

Helping Eckhoff in leading the effort for additional funding was his colleague, County Board member Gary Grasso, a Burr Ridge Republican.

“What motivated me was the reality that this is such a scourge on DuPage County,” he said. “You are talking about lives here.”

Several factors have contributed to the increase in heroin deaths, county officials said, including the fact that the heroin sold by drug dealers today is more pure than that sold in the past. The increased potency means that injecting the drug by needle is no longer necessary, thereby eliminating much of the stigma of a drug once thought to be the choice only of hard-core junkies and urban addicts down on their luck.

The DuPage County Health Department already has a program in place for heroin addicts, consisting of treatment and follow up medical help needed for a long-term recovery.

The county plans the new education effort to be an important line of attack against the drug, which Grasso pointed out would help prevent the individual from using heroin in the first place.

“The better money is spent on education,” he said, as opposed to a purely law enforcement approach. “We can save lives and we can save some families that are being destroyed by drugs.”

Initial plans are to reach out to children through schools, social media and other non-profit groups.

Also in the works is a website and other web applications dealing with the problem, with the ultimate goal of prompting families around DuPage to hold frank discussions with their children about the dangers of heroin.

While the County Board seeks to partner with other community groups in the fight against heroin, the decision on which groups will receive funding is at the sole discretion of the board.

DuPage Sheriff John Zaruba had no problem giving up a portion of his department’s budget for the cause, saying he was “wholeheartedly in support” of the effort, stressing that the “more awareness and more education brings better citizens and a better community.”

Board Chairman Dan Cronin agreed, saying the action “demonstrates our county’s commitment to the issue.”

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