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WJBD - Local News - Regional Groups Gather to Take Action on Prescription Opiate Abuse, Heroin Epidemic

Panelists (from left to right) Bruce Angleman, Dr. Michael Blain, Illinois Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Director Randy Malan, Wendel Arms, and Chris Marler prepare for the panel to begin.

Regional Groups Gather to Take Action on Prescription Opiate Abuse, Heroin Epidemic

By Rob Sussman, WJBD News

Around 100 gathered at Mt. Vernon's Crossroad's Community Hospital to call the Southern Illinois community to action over a growing epidemic in the region: Heroin and Prescription Opiate Abuse.

The SIU Center for Rural Health and Social Services Development and the Community Behavioral Healthcare Association hosted the community forum, entitled "The Prescription Drug/Opiate Addiction Epidemic in Southern Illinois", and called for a community response to an drug problem that panelist Bruce Angleman said would get "Worse before it got better".

Substance abuse therapist Wendel Arms says that heroin abuse cases have shot up across the region by around 17% the past several years, leading to 330 overdose deaths in St. Louis alone last year. Arms, a recovering valium addict by his own admission, calls addiction a "disease" that all too often goes untreated.

"30 million have addiction disease. Of those, 1% will go crazy and die, around 4% will get treatment, that's 5%, which means that more than 95% never get any treatment at all, yet it's 98% treatable" Arms said.

Keynote Speaker and Southern Illinois Enforcement Group member Tom McNamara says that heroin began to rear it's ugly head in full force about five years ago, and that the strains of heroin coming into the area, trafficked by Mexican Drug Cartels, have become more and more potent, leading to new ways to abuse heroin, such as smoking it or snorting it instead of injecting it. Because injecting heroin is a social taboo, even among drug users, abuse of heroin has become more widespread as new avenues of consuming the drug have opened, leaving more vulnerable to deadly overdoses. McNamara says that heroin and prescription opiates are uniquely dangerous.

"What it comes down to is...with methamphetamine, a person who gets tied up in it...will have physical damage. Heroin? It shuts down your respiratory system. You forget to breathe. That's not the situation we have with meth" said McNamara.

Chris Marler lost two of her sons to a combination use of prescription drugs and heroin. She warned parents to know the signs of drug abuse in children and teenagers, such as new friends who you have never seen or heard of before, secretive behavior, sleepiness or an abrupt change in personality. She says many parents choose to keep themselves ignorant.

"Parents have a hard time accepting that their kids are going to do drugs. 'Oh, my kid would never do that', they say. Every time I speak at an open house, they say 'my kids too smart to do that'. Been there. Done that" Marler said.

Marler's 21 year old son, Dustin, was his high school's valedictorian and tutored Calculus and Trigonometry. Her 23 year old son, Drew, worked on Nuclear Missiles with the US Air Force. She wore Dustin's valedictorian medal around her neck during the event, to showcase that "it can happen to anybody".

The forum wrapped up with community members exchanging information with hopes of creating a network of support and treatment groups to quickly react to those in need of treatment and spread community awareness about the growing threat of heroin and prescription opiate abuse.

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