U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, right, and DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen were among those discussing the problem of heroin use at a forum in Aurora Wednesday. (David Sharos / The Beacon-News)
Heroin use continues to be a problem in the Aurora area, with some officials saying a change in attitude is needed to make headway against the drug.
A group of local law enforcement officials and drug enforcement groups, led by U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Naperville), met at Aurora’s Eola Branch Library Wednesday to discuss the fight against heroin and opioid addiction.
"We are changing the way we look at this problem and not seeing it as a moral failure as we once did," Foster said. "It’s also not about intelligence – that has nothing to do with it. This has become an urgent health crisis and we were not prepared for the numbers we have been seeing."
Mark Piccoli of the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group said the task force has not seen any dip in heroin use over the past few years.
"In fact, the numbers have continued to go up," he said. "We had fewer arrests in 2016 than in 2015, but the numbers were not significant. We actually wound up seizing more, so the drugs are still out there. There has been no change in the supply and demand."
DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen talked about the use of Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It often will be combined with heroin.
"Every heroin addict wants to get as close to that first high as he can, which means skirting the edges of life," Jorgensen said. "If you buy drugs from the same person, you might be getting the same concentration but if it’s from other suppliers – you never know."
The number of people being killed by using opiods is large, said Jim Scarpace of the Gateway Foundation.
"Opioids kill approximately 90 Americans a day," he said.
Scarpace said society needs to look at drug issues from a medical versus a criminal perspective.
"We have to talk about this in terms of it being a disease that can be treated with a medical model and remove the stigmatism from it with words like ‘addict’ or calling someone an ‘alcoholic’ – which suggests a choice," Scarpace said. "Those terms create a barrier to treatment. People can’t stop using if they don’t have access to treatment. We know treatment works if people can get it and stay in the program. This is something they can overcome. It’s a disease, not a moral failing or a character flaw."
Debbie Fisher of Aurora, who said she was a retired pastor from the United Methodist Church in the Chicago area, came to the forum to learn more about the current drug problem.
"I know this problem is epidemic, and as a pastor, I’ve had to council many people in recovery and I’ve seen the outcomes of innocent people becoming addicted," Fisher said.
Pete Dell’Aquila of Braidwood said she wanted to attend the panel discussion "to see how other local groups were dealing with the problem."
"I’m looking to see what changes have taken place in terms of programs and know that sometimes in terms of getting treatment. it’s difficult to find the right fit," he said.
Foster said it is incumbent upon experts to understand "the science of addiction" and said his next stop Wednesday after the meeting was to go to Argonne National Laboratory, where scientists have been studying the chemical properties of drugs.
"We passed the non-partisan 21st Century Cures Act that provides over $1 billion in funding, but we need to be fighting this on the front lines, here on the local level," Foster said. "That’s where things get done."
David Sharos is a freelance reporter for The Beacon-News