Report: Chicago’s West Side is ‘Epicenter’ of Heroin Crisis in Illinois

(Eric Molina / Flickr)(Eric Molina / Flickr)

As heroin use increases across the country, a new report from Roosevelt University analyzes its impact in Illinois. One of the report’s co-authors pinpoints Chicago’s West Side as the “epicenter” of the state’s crisis.

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The report, titled “Hidden in Plain Sight,” examines heroin deaths, arrests and hospitalizations in West Side communities. It was released in observance of International Drug Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.

According to the report, hospitalizations for opioids on the West Side make up nearly 1 in 4 opioid hospitalizations for the entire state.

Overdose mortality rates from heroin also disproportionally impact Chicago’s black population on the city’s South and West Sides, the report finds. In 2014, around 9 in 100,000 African-Americans died as a result of heroin overdose, in comparison to 5.9 per 100,000 for whites.

Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy and co-author of the report, said most of the attention on the epidemic has focused on policing, rather than treatment. While drug arrests for heroin possession have decreased by 30 percent across Chicago between 2010 and 2015, areas of the West Side such as West and East Garfield Park saw an increase in arrests.

“Incarceration or arrest is an extremely ineffective and expensive way to treat a health crisis like this,” said Kane-Willis. “We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

In response to the report, State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago) launched the West Side Heroin Task Force to assist in creating evidence-based solutions to the community’s drug problem. The force advocates for increasing the number of community-based treatment facilities, creating diversion programs for those arrested, and expanding access to Naxolone, a drug that treats narcotic overdoses in emergency situations. Roosevelt University and Loretto Hospital in Austin are among those collaborating in the task force.

Ford believes the recent findings change the narrative about the heroin crisis in Illinois from one that has primarily focused on white, suburban or rural users.

“The drug crisis in the suburbs ends when we help the West Side of Chicago and end the flow of drugs on the streets,” said Ford at a press conference. “To continue to ignore the West Side of Chicago is like a firefighter putting out a fire in part of the house, and then leaving the house burning.”

Kane-Willis agrees with Ford. She says the West Side is the “epicenter of the problem,” and if the issue isn’t addressed in the community, “we’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle.”

“If this happened somewhere else, the community would not tolerate the lack of care and number of arrests,” she added. “We only talk about the West Side as place where people from the suburbs come to get their heroin, but we never talk about it as a health problem.”

Follow Reuben Unrau on Twitter: @reubenunrau

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