BLOOMINGTON — The wave of opioid addiction responsible for a national epidemic of overdoses is the leading concern for law enforcement agencies working to combat the dangerous drugs, and prosecutors who see the human toll left behind.
"Heroin is definitely our number one public safety threat," said DeWitt County Sheriff Jered Shofner, whose department is one of six agencies that make up the Illinois State Police Task Force 6 narcotics unit. Task Force 6 uses resources from the DeWitt, Piatt and McLean County sheriff's departments and the Illinois State University and Clinton police departments.
A majority of 19 state drug task forces surveyed by the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority listed heroin as the most serious drug in their communities.
Immediately behind heroin as the major source of crime and health concerns for Illinois police is the spread of illegal prescription drugs, according to the survey released last year.
Public education about the dangers of prescription painkillers that are a known path to heroin for many people is key to reducing the number of addicts, said McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage.
"This is not a problem we can arrest our way out of," said Sandage, characterizing opioids, which include heroin and prescription drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, as "a problem law enforcement has never seen the likes of before."
For as little as $5, an addict can buy enough heroin for a single high.
Area law enforcement officials agree even small amounts of heroin circulating in a community can produce devastating consequences.
"We see the human toll of addiction in small communities. We're not a 'source city' for heroin dealers, but we end up seeing people who've just purchased the drug and used. As soon as they buy that small quantity, they are using it," said Shofner.
It's also common for police to find addicts as they are passing through on their way home from a drug transaction.
Shofner said his deputies recently stopped a woman en route to Decatur with her young child, and heroin, in the car. The child was placed in the custody of child welfare workers after the woman was arrested.
In Bloomington, cocaine remains the most commonly possessed illegal drug, said Police Chief Brendan Heffner. Officers have made just one drug buy involving heroin this year, he said.
"We find more people in possession of other people's pills," said Heffner.
Meanwhile, the number of prescription drug cases filed in McLean County has grown dramatically in the past several years, said McLean County Assistant State's Attorney Jeff Horve.
"Prescription drugs have exploded," he said, adding the single monthly pill case filed five years ago is now 10 to 15 cases.
Heroin traffickers differ from their marijuana counterparts, said Horve, in that marijuana dealers often use the drug themselves.
But those who sell heroin "are pure dealers and the users are pure addicts," he said.
The heroin currently on the market is more powerful and lethal than what was found on the street in previous decades, authorities caution.
The practice of cutting the drug with fentanyl a powerful synthetic opioid, and other potent substances has added to the threat of overdose and death, said McLean County Coroner Kathy Davis.
Three of the 16 opioid-related deaths recorded in McLean County in 2016 involved fentanyl. Heroin was listed as the primary cause in four deaths and combined drug intoxication accounted for another six. Three deaths were attributed to hydrocodone and oxymorphone, according to coroner's data.
Davis, also a nurse practitioner, shared her research into drug trends recently with an audience of health professionals at Heartland Community College. Speaking on a panel that included Sandage and several experts on the impacts of drug abuse, Davis dispelled several myths people may have about opioids.
"Rarely do I see needle marks. They're snorting it," said Davis. When the coroner's staff arrives at some death scenes, "the needle is still in their arm," she said.
The widely held notion that a heroin user is a junkie who lacks any promise for the future no longer holds true, said Davis. Young and athletic, one McLean County overdose victim seemed to have everything going for him, including the support of an upper-income family, Davis said in an example of an overdose case her office handled.
"It's not what you think it is," Davis said of the opioid epidemic.
For addicts trying to end their dependence, the wait for a bed in a treatment center can be as short as several hours or as long as days.
A Bloomington mental health crisis and detox center was forced to turn away 70 people seeking help with an addiction in March, a recurring problem for the 14-bed facility that serves as the county's only medical detox center.
Chestnut Health Systems is in the process of adding eight more beds to its crisis stabilization center for people experiencing a mental health or drug-related crisis.
Until a $400,000 expansion of the agency's west Bloomington facility is completed later this summer, Chestnut will continue to admit patients from many locations throughout Illinois as space allows.
"In the last five years detox centers in the state have closed because of funding. Meanwhile, the need for beds is growing, especially in the rural counties," said Joan Hartman, Chestnut's central region manager.