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Lake County’s death by heroin rate nearly tripled since 2007

Updated: May 14, 2011 12:26AM

WAUKEGAN — Around 10:30 p.m. on April 3, an unconscious 23-year-old man was found in the bathroom of a gas station off Gages Lake Road, apparently having overdosed on heroin.

After being taken to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, the man reportedly walked out within an hour of arrival. At 7:30 a.m. the next day, he was found dead of another overdose in the Round Lake area.

Sheriff Mark Curran shared that basic information on the case, which remains under investigation, last week when he summarized his office’s recent supervision of the Lake County Coroner’s office. He said it was one example of what he called “an explosion of deaths by heroin overdose in Lake County” since at least 2007.

“It is unbelievable how powerful this substance is,” Curran said after telling the story, adding that during his review of coroner’s procedures, “the thing that jumped out is how crazy things have gotten with regard to heroin.”

According to a report released by Curran’s office, Lake County deaths related to either heroin or heroin combined with another drug, such as cocaine, numbered 13 in 2007, 30 in 2008, 30 in 2009 and 35 in 2010. Curran said that from the time his office took control of the coroner’s office in late February through early April, there were 10 more heroin-related deaths.

Overall deaths attributed to substance abuse — including not only heroin but things like alcohol, cocaine and prescription medications — have also increased in the county every year since 1998, when the figure was under 30. The toll hit 65 in 2006, 81 in 2007, 81 in 2008, 88 in 2009 and 92 in 2010.

Heroin has been listed on recent annual totals as the leading cause of substance-abuse deaths, often by a wide margin. For example, of the 92 deaths in 2010, 24 were directly linked to heroin alone, along with five to heroin and cocaine, three to heroin and “other,” and two to a combination of heroin, cocaine and the anti-anxiety drug benzodiazepine. The next leading single cause in 2010 was cocaine, with eight deaths.

The report also illustrated that substance-abuse deaths in general are being reported from every corner of the county. In 2010, the leading police jurisdictions handling such fatalities were Waukegan with 23 and the sheriff’s department with 21, but 23 other communities reported at least one death from substance abuse, including Fox Lake (six), Mundelein (three), North Chicago (three) and Wauconda (three). Gurnee, Lake Forest and Lincolnshire each reported two.

In the report, Curran wrote that he presided over several case conferences determining causes of death, and “was able to see a very grave picture of the trouble with drug addiction, mental illnesses and suicide, as well as societal problems. I was particularly troubled by the heroin problem facing Lake County.”

“There are several reasons for the explosion of deaths by heroin,” Curran added. “Heroin is cheaper than virtually any other drug, which increases the demand for heroin; the heroin in this country is stronger than it was in the past so users can now snort it and smoke it, whereas in the past it had to be injected; (and) we are not doing a good enough job educating people as to the dangers of this most addictive and deadly drug.”

In late 2008 and early 2009, officials with both the coroner’s office and the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement group said a specific increase in heroin potency led to a flurry of deaths, including eight in December 2008 alone. At that time, three heroin-related deaths were considered average for a month.

Elaborating on his written remarks last week, Curran said his office has found that “the bulk of the heroin is still coming out of Cook County and Chicago,” and he attributed a recent “rash of burglaries in Libertyville and Green Oaks” to young people feeding their drug habits. He added that he feels part of the solution lies in more awareness of the problem and public-service messages targeting the dangers of substance abuse.

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