Help, Not Handcuffs, for Drug Abusers

Police changing focus as prescription drugs change the landscape.

Michael Nerheim is Lake County, IL, State's Attorney and Eric Guenther is Mundelein, IL, Police Chief.

​Historically, the role of police officers has been to arrest drug abusers, but with the creation of a new program in Lake County, Illinois, we will be in a position to help drug users get the treatment they need.

The development of this program comes in response to an evolving issue in Lake County. Located about 40 miles north of downtown Chicago, our communities have strong schools, higher than average household incomes, a relatively low poverty rate – and a growing heroin problem.

The common image of heroin use, for many people, involves secondhand syringes being used in the dark alleys of our nation's major cities. But heroin use is reached using a different path today. Often, an athlete sustains a sports-related injury, is prescribed opioid painkillers as part of the treatment, and begins to abuse the pills. Then, when the prescription runs out and the cost of black market pills becomes untenable, heroin becomes the next best option.

As this cycle has been repeated, heroin and prescription drug abuse has increased. To address this, a program is being initiated to give those in need another avenue to get help. Through the A Way Out program, people facing substance abuse problems in our community will be able to go to police departments and be essentially escorted through the first steps toward treatment. The officers, working with a variety of local treatment providers, will help drug abusers get medical and treatment assessments, identify payment options, and find space in in-patient or out-patient settings.

The program will start out in June with seven departments initially participating, and we believe it will offer multiple positive outcomes. A Way Out will not only benefit the people who, having come to the realization that they need treatment, have a place to go, day or night; the training and tools will also benefit the officers and agencies who on a daily basis see the devastating impact of drug abuse.

Having officers get people in need to treatment is just the newest step being taken to address drug abuse in Lake County. Law enforcement personnel are equipped with Naloxone and have used it to save more than 70 lives.

In addition, 27 of the 40 police departments in Lake County have medication drop boxes, and last year they collected 12,000 pounds of unused pills; this made up 30% of all the unused medications from the entire state of Illinois. The Highland Park Police Department alone collected 900 pounds of pills. Local pharmacies also are working toward adding drop boxes for the safe disposal of unused medications.

The removal of these pills from our county's medicine cabinets has made a difference. After recording 41 deaths from prescription medicine overdoses in 2011, we had 18 in 2015. As other departments, and also local pharmacies, add drop boxes for the safe disposal of unused medications, we hope to see this figure decline further in the years to come.

As the program continues to evolve, we expect that officers, probation personnel, courts and treatment providers will become better informed and more efficient in guiding people away from drug use. But the most important steps will not come from those of us in law enforcement. The biggest steps will come when a person walks in to a police station and says aloud, "I need to stop." When we hear those words, we'll be ready to help.

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