NORMAL — The opioid epidemic that kills 175 people daily in the U.S. is a tough opponent with a multinational supply network, acting U.S. Attorney Patrick Hansen told an audience for Tuesday's summit in Normal on the issues surrounding the addictive drugs.

So far this year, the number of overdose deaths has doubled in McLean County, according to Coroner Kathy Davis, a panelist at the forum sponsored by the McLean County Bar Association and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District.

Following the daylong event at the Bone Student Center, Hansen said the conversation must continue between law enforcement, medical professionals and attorneys who see the consequences of the opioid crisis.

"We need long-term, not short-term solutions," said Hansen, adding that includes expansion of access to drug treatment.

The targeted efforts by law enforcement to combat the opioid trade are made more difficult by drug dealers who stay one step ahead of the law, explained Scott Giovannelli, resident agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration area that includes Central Illinois.

Among their tactics, dealers move smaller amounts of heroin to avoid the 100-gram minimum that triggers tougher federal sentencing if convicted.

"They realize what 100 grams means. They're still making a significant profit but minimizing their risk by moving small amounts," said the DEA agent.

"I'm living proof that opioids do not have a 'type,'" said Dewey, a successful businessman whose journey to addiction began with the first of two prescriptions for back pain. A friend gave Dewey heroin after seeing him in withdrawal from the prescription painkillers.

"It was heroin, every single day. I was hooked. I felt like I was in a five-year living hell," said Dewey.

The recovering addict said he entered treatment after two state troopers familiar with his drug use came to his door in Jacksonville with an ultimatum: Get some help or get ready for handcuffs.

Dr. Ramsin Benyamin, founder of Millennium Pain Center in Bloomington, said "I don't think there's one magic bullet to fight this. It takes a concerted effort."

Physicians and agencies that issue accreditations to medical facilities share the responsibility for the spread of drug addiction, said Benyamin.

Requirements that patients leave a hospital with a low level of pain has resulted in doctors prescribing multiple medications that carry a potential for addiction, said Benyamin.

"They send them home like zombies," said the doctor, adding that a balance must be struck between access to pain medications and the need to prevent abuse.

The U.S. had 4.4 percent of the world's population in 2014 but consumed 69.1 percent of the world's opioid supply and 99.7 percent of the world supply of one such drug, hydrocodone, said the pain management doctor.

The question of how addicts should be treated by the criminal justice system was explored by McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage, McLean County State's Attorney Jason Chambers and Judge Casey Costigan.

Sandage said his staff monitors inmates who are going through opioid withdrawal. The county is considering a program that would allow addicts seeking help with treatment to surrender their drugs to law enforcement, said the sheriff.

For many defendants, the county's drug court is a successful alternative to incarceration, said Costigan, who presides over the problem-solving court.

With just 17 percent of drug court participants charged with a new offense within two years of their graduation from the program, the drug court, with its strict probation requirements, has a recidivism rate far better than the 75 percent rate for Illinois prisons, said Costigan.

The process of admitting defendants to drug court includes an evaluation of the person's criminal record that cannot include violent offenses, said Chambers. Drug offenders must adhere to strict probation terms, including counseling.       

Follow Edith Brady-Lunny on Twitter: @pg_blunny



Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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