Heroin On The North Shore: It’s Here, Now

This is the first of three articles in a GazeboNews Special Report about heroin in Lake County and the North Shore. Please click here to read the second story, “As Son Nears 18, Local Family Races To Rescue Him From Addiction”, and click here to read the third story, an account of addiction in the young man’s own words.

By Adrienne Fawcett

What do you know about heroin? Until recently I thought heroin was a drug used primarily by junkies in scary places that don’t exist in the 60045 or 60044 zip codes. I thought heroin required needle injections and was expensive and hard to get. I didn’t think I knew anyone who used heroin.

I was wrong – on all of it. Heroin can be snorted or smoked—the stigma of needles is no longer a barrier. It’s readily available and cheap –an initial dose costs less than a bottle of table wine. Heroin use has increased dramatically in the Chicago area, including on the North Shore and throughout Lake County. So far this year, the Lake County Sheriff’s Office has confiscated 8 kilos of heroin off the street–up from just 18 grams in all of 2012.

“Heroin is one of the most pressing problems in Lake County because it’s as addictive as any substance there is,” said Sheriff Mark Curran. “It’s so destructive, people are dying from overdose. You don’t delve into these drugs without long-term severe consequences.”

Dozens of county residents have died from overdoses of the drug — including a Lake Bluff woman in her mid 20s who died in September. The county coroner attributes at least two other deaths in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff in the past two years to heroin overdose.

PJ Newberg knows about heroin on the North Shore. Her daughter got addicted when she was 16 years old and a student at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, and it has, in Newberg’s words, ruined the girl’s life and shattered her family. The ordeal inspired Newberg to become an advocate for heroin awareness and to start a website whose name summarizes her message: www.northshoresecretheroinproblem.com.

Said Newberg: “This whole area worries about the stigma, and no one wants to talk about it. They say ‘it’s not my kids, not my community.’ But yes – it is. And this is life or death.”

Heroin is a growing problem in Chicago that many consider the root of the city’s gang-related killing sprees. The Mexican cartel uses Chicago as a major distribution portal to the U.S. because of its transportation assets and access to gang members who make their living selling drugs, reported Bloomberg News in September. In a recent article, Chicago magazine cited a U.S. Department of Justice 2010 report that says the Chicago metro area is the No. 1 destination in the U.S. for heroin shipments.

In Lake County between 2007 and 2011 heroin overdose deaths increased 115%, according to a 2012 Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy study. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office considers heroin a county-wide epidemic because overdose fatalities have increased, and the drug is stronger than ever; by some accounts 65% stronger than heroin in the 1990s. Most Lake County heroin-related deaths have occurred in Waukegan, which is considered ground zero for distribution of the drug in this part of the Chicago area. Here are statistics on heroin-related deaths by municipality, provided by Tammy Williams, senior deputy coroner for Lake County.


Statistics on drug-related deaths in Lake County, provided by Lake County Coroner's office.

Statistics on drug-related deaths in Lake County, provided by Lake County Coroner’s office.


Just what is heroin? The Partnership at Drugfree.org defines heroin as a “highly addictive drug derived from morphine, which is obtained from the opium poppy. It is a ‘downer’ or depressant that affects the brain’s pleasure systems and interferes with the brain’s ability to perceive pain.”

What is a heroin high like? “A derivative of morphine, heroin is a very powerful painkiller. Its painkilling properties stem from the fact that it mimics endorphins, the natural pain-killing substances produced by the body. As heroin binds rapidly with endorphin receptors, the painkilling effect is extended and magnified, and produces a pleasurable sensation called a ‘rush’,” according to heroin.net, a website that provides resources for heroin addicts.

What are long-term effects? The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention cites collapsed veins, infection of the heart lining and valves, abscesses, liver disease, and pulmonary complications — or death. Withdrawal is horrendous–constant vomiting, simultaneous fever and chills, disorientation, lasting for weeks. It’s a very difficult addiction to kick, with a high percentage of relapse among people in recovery.

“Heroin addiction is increasingly being recognized as a chronic relapsing condition,” according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

And as users become more dependent on the drug they build a tolerance to it, requiring more heroin to get high. “This leads to an expensive habit – and the constant threat of overdose,” reports heroin.net.

And what about in Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and Knollwood—is heroin a problem here?

“Lake Forest absolutely has heroin, and it’s ripe for more people getting addicted to heroin,” said Sherrif Curran. “It only  takes a couple of kids at school getting hooked and the next thing you know they bring it to their friends and what have you. We’re in a time and culture where every parent should expect heroin will be presented to their child at some point in time.”

Presently, the drug isn’t considered cool among teenagers at Lake Forest High School, according to people interviewed for this story. But abuse of prescription and over-the-counter painkillers is a big problem in this community – and that could open the door to heroin abuse.

  • The 2012 Illinois Youth Survey indicates alcohol, marijuana and prescription/over-the-counter drugs are the top three substances for abuse among teenagers in Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and Knollwood.

Prescription and OTC painkillers offer a similar high to heroin’s high, which is one reason they’re considered a gateway to heroin use. Another reason is that heroin is much cheaper than prescription opiates — users get a similar high for less money.

“The chemical make up between heroin and one widely used prescription painkiller is so incredibly similar that it makes sense it’s a gateway,” said Andy Duran, executive director of LEAD, a Lake Forest-based organization whose name stands for Leading Efforts Against Drugs.

PJ Newberg realized her daughter had been doing heroin just seven weeks after the teen first used the drug, but by then it was too late – her daughter was already addicted.

“It tore our family apart. It has ruined her life. She can no longer be a student. She got into legal trouble. It’s a battle she has to face every day of her life,” said Newberg. After four in-patient recovery programs, her daughter now lives out-of-state and is sober.

That’s not the case with the high school friends she had been using heroin with—Newberg said four of them died in an 18-month period, all age 19 or younger. The boyfriend who introduced her daughter to the drug was a star athlete, not someone you’d associate with heroin, Newberg said. He too is dead.

“It doesn’t matter if you have addiction in your family or not,” said Newberg. “Even if no one in your family has had any addictions in five generations—it could happen. Heroin is more physically addicting than any other drug and is the hardest drug to kick. Half of them don’t even know what they’re doing when they first use it.”

Like others interviewed for this series, Newberg said most teenagers are introduced to heroin in one of three ways:

  1. A friend offers them a joint or line of powder when they’re already drunk or stoned, and they think it’s “just pot” or “just cocaine”, but it’s actually heroin.
  2. They seek heroin out after becoming addicted to prescription and OTC painkillers, because heroin provides a similar high but is cheaper
  3. They seek heroin because the “junkie stigma” is fading, the drug is cheap, available in powder, and the supply is plentiful.

Lake Forest and Lake Bluff police said they don’t encounter many heroin overdoses but they’re aware of the issues the drug is causing in Lake County and Chicago. Lake Bluff Deputy Police Chief David Belmonte said youth officers in the department have information and resources to share with people who need help with an addicted family member or friend.

Lake Forest Deputy Police Chief Karl Walldorf said heroin-addiction is a crime motivator. “Anecdotally, most of our officers have arrested offenders for property crimes where the offender was clearly an addict and stealing to support their habit. It is also fairly common when our residents are addicted for their parents, family and friends report to us their loved one is stealing money and/or property from them to support their habit,” he said.

Please visit GazeboNews again on Thursday to read about a local family’s experience with their son’s heroin addiction, and again on Friday for an account of the ordeal in the young man’s own words, including illustrations that he drew while using and also while in recovery.

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