By Dani Anguiano
Drug policy experts and substance abuse professionals have called for strong action to tackle heroin abuse as well as expressed optimism about a $25 million legislative package to be proposed by Illinois lawmakers.
House Democratic Assistant Majority Leader Lou Lang, (D-Skokie), and state Rep. John Anthony, (R-Morris), recently announced their plan to propose legislation that will address what health-care professionals describe as a heroin epidemic. The legislation would require, among other things, the development of a drug prevention program for schools, the establishment of a medication take-back program, and increased access to drugs that fight heroin overdoses.
Education and early treatment
Under the expected plan, the Department of Human Services and the Illinois State Board of Education would be required to create a voluntary three-year pilot program for public schools in Illinois. If a school board decides to implement the program for one or more grades, DHS will reimburse any associated costs. DHS, ISBE and any contracted organization will file an annual report to the General Assembly on the pilot program.
Substance abuse counselor Joslyn Jelinek, a licensed clinical social worker with the Chicago Human Potential, said there needs to be more outreach among teens for education, but particularly with treatment.
“I hope that there is ample treatment for teenagers because they often get the short end of the stick because people don’t want to conceptualize that you have 12-year-old addicts that start with taking or sharing pills.” Jelinek said.
The over-prescription problem
Effective Jan. 1, 2017, DHS is required to establish a medication take-back program to allow for the collection of unused medications in a safe at every pharmacy. This requirement would call for the disposal of controlled substances approved for collection by federal law.
The medication take-back program is just one way the plan will address over-prescription of painkillers, which the lawmakers say has fueled the heroin epidemic. Under the expected plan, pharmacies would be unable to dispense more than a 10-day supply of opioid drugs without additional authorization from a doctor.
“Expert testimony at the heroin task force hearings made abundantly clear that a tsunami of over-prescription of opioid pain killers has unleashed the heroin epidemic in Illinois and across the nation,” Lang said.
Treatment over prison
The idea has garnered praise from some drug policy and substance abuse counseling professionals.
“It is more health driven than what I’ve seen previously, which tends to be criminal justice driven,” said Kathie Kane-Willis, president of Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. “I am concerned about some of the penalties for doctor shopping and we need to ensure that there is a pathway for those who are misusing opiate pills to treatment. Other than that, I think it is one of the most progressive bills related to substance use and I am pleased with the majority of it,” said Kane-Willis, who noted she is still reviewing the bill.
Jelinek, of Chicago Human Potential, said she thinks this is a step in the right direction for Illinois.
“I think people in the community of treatment of substance abuse think that if more treatment is offered and happening, there will be less cases,” Jelinek said.
Heroin abuse and overdoses are on the rise in Illinois and across the country. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2009-2012 there was a 74 percent increase in the number of heroin users. A report released earlier this month revealed that heroin deaths have nearly tripled between 2010 and 2013, from 1 for every 100,000 people in 2010 to 2.7 for every 100,000 in 2013. The report found people who die from heroin-related overdoses in America tend to be young, white and live in the Midwest.
Narcan: Savior or crutch?
One aspect of the bill would deal with overdoses by increasing the availability of overdose antidote Naloxone, also known as Narcan, among first responders and at pharmacies where training would be provided.
“Part of the bill also says that there will be more access to Narcan and that’s really great,” Jelinek said. “People die of overdoses because they are alone and they don’t have access to saving themselves.”
According to Sharon Kelly, CEO of Associates in Emergency Medical Education in Tampa Bay, Florida, there is some concern about Narcan being more available.
“When you look at the facts it doesn’t seem to be a deterrent,” said Kelley, a speaker with the Drug Free America Foundation. “Is this an opportunity to get high and someone can rescue them like a designated driver?”
Kelley said that regardless of increased Narcan availability, strong action must be taken to tackle the heroin problem.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a time when there is such an availability [of heroin],” Kelley said. “It’s a much wider spread problem than is known.”