CLINTON — A forum Tuesday on the deadly effects of opioids on rural communities drew about 75 local, state, and federal stakeholders who shared their experiences and ideas for battling what the White House recently classified as a national emergency.
The discussion on heroin and opioids was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, a Taylorville Republican, and included remarks from Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Glenn Haas.
“This epidemic knows no neighborhood, no color and no class,” Sanguinetti told the audience at the Vespasian Warner Public Library.
The state is working to develop a strategy that will be funded in part by a $16 million federal grant that will be parceled among prevention, treatment and law enforcement sectors, she said.
The large audience is an indicator of the breadth of the problem facing rural communities, Davis said.
“The worst part is we’re seeing these meetings grow. We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” he said.
Jaime Smith, a recovering heroin addict from St. Joseph, shared her addiction story that began in 2013 with her use of hydrocodone, a prescription painkiller. Other women who lived a similar upscale lifestyle in the area also abused drugs, Smith said.
“I was popping and swapping pills with a group of moms. We were doctor shopping and doing anything we could to get our next fix,” Smith said.
After the loss of her family and a high-paying job, Smith found herself living in Chicago as a full-blown heroin addict. The connection with a therapist who addressed her underlying mental health issues saved her life, Smith said.
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Over the past several years, the avalanche of heroin and opioids has swept across the Midwest, said Haas, who heads the DEA's Chicago field division.
The crack cocaine and meth surges of the early 2000s were replaced with opioids starting about 2014, said Haas. To illustrate how the shift in drug use has altered law enforcement, Haas said the Springfield DEA office has seen its heroin investigations go from 10 percent in 2014 to 85 percent to 90 percent in 2017.
With dangerous additives like fentanyl, heroin has become more powerful and potentially deadly to users, Haas told the group.
The source of much of the heroin use is known, said Haas.
“It’s very, very sad, but 80 percent of the heroin users started out with opioids and painkillers,” he said.
DeWitt County organized its Substance Abuse Coalition in early 2016 in response to a growing number of fatal overdoses. The group has sponsored speakers and a Clinton Cares rally in July to raise awareness for the issue.
The Rev. Scott Marsh, pastor of Texas Christian Church in Clinton, also serves as a volunteer firefighter who has responded to overdose calls. He questioned whether there might be a way to compel people to receive treatment similar to the short-term hospitalizations that may be ordered for people who pose a risk to themselves or others.
“Is there something we could do to not make it so easy to be treated but not really treat the problem? I’m not talking about locking up addicts. I’ve talking about getting them help,” Marsh said.
Crisis calls like the ones described by Marsh may be addressed by a mobile unit proposed as part of the state’s grant, said Dr. Maria Bruni, acting secretary of the Department of Human Services.
Public officials from McLean, Sangamon and other area communities attended the forum.