Forum exposes harsh reality of local drug problem

Monroe County Sheriff Dan Kelley speaks during the forum while U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois Steve Wigginton, Waterloo Police Chief Jim Trantham and Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards look on. (Robyn Dexter photo)

Rocketing case numbers and harsh truths from both local and state figureheads were the topics of Thursday night’s community forum addressing the issues of heroin and prescription drug abuse in Monroe County.

The forum, sponsored by the Monroe County Coroner’s Office, brought in Stephen Wigginton, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois; Robert Shinn, resident agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Fairview Heights office; Michael Shah, tactical intelligence analyst at the DEA Fairview Heights office; along with local law enforcement and coalition representatives.

Speakers shocked attendees of the forum, held at Hope Christian Church, with local overdose call numbers, information about the spread of heroin in the region and how it’s hitting closer to home each day.

Monroe County Coroner Vicki Koerber opened the evening with the latest local statistics.

“We’ve had 10 overdose deaths (since December 2010), and that’s anything between prescription drug overdoses all the way up to heroin,” she said. “If this were 10 deaths on a community stretch of road, we’d have our leaders and IDOT putting their heads together and trying to figure out how we could solve the problem.”

Koerber said between the two EMS services that operate in Monroe County, they have seen a staggering rise in overdose-related calls. In 2012, they had 50 calls; it rose to 70 in 2013.

“That’s an average of 1.3 per week of overdose runs,” she said.

Wigginton called the drug problem in southern Illinois a “public health crisis.”

“Heroin addiction and prescription pain medication addiction don’t know class, race or gender,” he said. “It’s like cancer, and everyone’s susceptible.”

Wigginton showed headlines of newspapers across the country, showing how widespread the severity of the drug problem is in the United States.

“A fair number of people I’ve talked to across southern Illinois don’t believe they don’t have a heroin problem in their county,” he said. “I tell them they’re in denial.”

Wigginton stressed that although deaths can be counted, “near-misses” cannot.

“The medical industry doesn’t share that information with us… We don’t get it from hospitals,” he said.

He talked about Monroe County’s bordering counties including St. Clair and Madison, which have also seen a rise in overdose deaths. Madison County saw 35 overdoses in 2009 and nearly doubled in 2010 to 60.

There was a reduction in 2013 to 48, and Wigginton attributed it partially to forums like this one.

“These are typically 39-to-41-year-old white males who are dying of overdoses,” he said.

Wigginton has heard countless stories of addicts switching from prescription pain pills to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get.

He talked about identifying modern heroin in the area, which he said typically comes in “buttons,” or small capsules that one-tenth of one gram of the drug is stored in.

“They sell for only $10 and will give you a six-to-eight-hour high,” he said. “However, a 30-gram Vicodin sells for $30. You can see why someone would do that because it’s cheaper.”

Shinn informed forum attendees about the National Take-Back Initiative, which allows people to drop off old or unused prescriptions, including pain medications, and get them out of homes where they can be easily accessed by others.

“The DEA will collect the medications, and they will be incinerated,” Shinn said.

Both Columbia and Waterloo have these drop boxes in their police department lobbies.

“Prescription medications are at least regulated – heroin is not,” Shinn said. “These people don’t care. It’s all foreign-based.”

Shinn told about how the DEA works at targeting international drug cartels and trafficking organizations.

“This is everyone’s problem,” he said. “Addicts break into houses, destroy vehicles and even kill people. They just don’t care because they need to feed their addiction.”

Shah geared his part of the presentation directly to Monroe County and what he has seen.

“Sixty percent of high school students say they attend a high school where drugs are used, kept and/or sold,” Shah said.

He stressed that parents should monitor their children’s phones, Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts because he’s seen kids talk about heroin and other drugs through those outlets.

Shah has seen marijuana circulating through local schools as early as sixth and seventh grade. Because of this, it is hugely important to reach kids about the dangers of drugs like heroin even earlier than they had ever imagined.

“Heroin attaches to the pleasure receptors of the brain, the opiate receptors. It actually changes the receptors,” he said. “It only takes two times. There is no recreational user of heroin. You can’t be.”

Heroin also attaches to the brain stem unlike anything else and actually stops the user from breathing, Shinn said. That is how people overdose.

Waterloo Police Chief Jim Trantham drove the local angle home with a quote he used several times during his segment: “It’s just Waterloo.”

He said he’s hearing it over and over, even more so lately.

In 2010, Waterloo had four heroin arrests. In 2011, there were five; 2012 saw eight, and 2013 saw seven.

“Some people say that’s not many, but that’s too many when you consider our population,” Trantham said.

He said the Waterloo drop box for prescriptions collected 300 pounds last year.

“When people ask you why you went to this forum, tell them it’s because this is Waterloo, and we want to keep it Waterloo,” he said.

Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards said his department’s drop box had 479 pounds of prescription medication turned in between June 2012 and October 2013.

“Let me be very clear: drugs are a problem in Columbia,” Edwards said. “In 2013, we responded to 42 overdose-related calls.”

That number is a 68 percent increase in drug overdose cases for Columbia police and EMS in one year.

“These numbers come from a community of approximately 10,000 residents,” he said. “Since 2012, we’ve had two deaths directly related to drug overdoses.”

Monroe County Sheriff Dan Kelley echoed the seriousness of the drug problem in Monroe County.

“People think these aren’t high numbers, but that’s how epidemics get started,” he said. “Small numbers go unchecked, and pretty soon you’ve got a whole community that’s deteriorated.”

The same night as the forum, three more deaths were reported in the metro east. Madison County Coroner Stephen P. Nonn reported that investigations are under way for three deaths in which heroin usage is suspected. They include a 29-year-old female from Collinsville, a 38-year-old male from Roxana and a 40-year-old male from Granite City.

In addition to those deaths, two more possible drug overdose deaths were reported Monday in Belleville.


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