Chesterton Tribune



Taking another crack at finding solutions to the drug problem

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For more than 15 years--since the Chesterton Tribune first reported, in 1998, the existence of a heroin problem here--the drug crisis in Porter County has been a hot-button issue.

The Porter County Substance Abuse Council, then the Community Action Drug Coalition, and most recently EMPOWER Porter County have all worked to promote awareness of substance abuse and addiction, particularly among our youth; have sponsored numerous community forums and events; have raised money for treatment facilities.

The press--even The Times and The Post-Tribune--has shown no interest in whitewashing the problem, on the contrary has dutifully covered the overdose casualties, the heroin pipeline to Chicago, the tainted product.

Porter Starke Services Inc., meanwhile--joined several years ago by Frontline Foundations Inc.--has done its best to provide homegrown treatment services to those in need.

Even a drug court, under Porter Superior Court Judge Julia Jent, has been established, in an effort to fasttrack users into treatment and out of the criminal justice system.

So it’s not as though folks in Porter County have been sitting on their hands, or merely wringing them.

But sometimes it takes outsiders, with no ties to the community and no special knowledge of it, to frame and clarify the terms of an issue.

On Wednesday, the Porter County Substance Abuse Council sponsored “Let’s Talk: A Community Conversation” at The Waterbird, keynoted by Alan Markwood and Tim Cramer of Chestnut Health Systems, an addiction treatment provider based in Bloomington, Ill.

Markwood’s main point: there is no magic-bullet solution to the drug problem and, indeed, sometimes the commonsensical approach proves to be, counterintuitively, very nearly the worst one you can take.

As Markwood noted, the very prevalent notion, namely, that simply showing kids the consequences of drug use should be enough to persuade them in the first place not to experiment--the notion that “if young people only knew, they wouldn’t do it”--is actually wrong and wrong-headed.

“Young people aren’t adults,” Markwood said. “They think differently. Sometimes that message can be counterproductive, depending on the audience. It’s surprising how much that doesn’t solve the problem.”

There are three key points to consider in any discussion of possible solutions, Markwood said:

* The prevalence of youth substance use increases with age. Thus 21.5 percent of 16-year-olds report drinking in the past month, while 39.2 percent of 18-year-olds do and 55.3 percent of 20-year-olds do.

* The number of substances used by youth also increases with age, in a non-random fashion. That is to say, it’s highly unlikely that any given youth will ever try heroin but virtually everyone who does first tried marijuana. Markwood, in other words, made a compelling case for marijuana as a gateway drug. “The earlier you start the use of any drug, the more likely you are to have a problem and to use more drugs,” he said.

* Finally, prevention efforts need to take into account two different things: a persons individual risk factors--one’s personality, genetic predispositions, and any “adverse childhood experiences”--but also social factors. The latter may include peer pressure, norms relating to alcohol or drug use, and the availability of substances like alcohol.


What has made heroin such an emergent problem in the community? Markwood’s colleague, Tim Cramer, said that it’s due to the following, a “perfect storm” of factors:

* Heroin is cheap. The market is flooded with the stuff and the supply has outpaced the demand.

* Heroin is easy to get. Drive to Chicago. Drive to Gary. Or make friends with someone who will.

* Heroin is easy to use the first time. A person need only snort it. Most first-time users of heroin convince themselves that they’ll only ever snort it, never shoot it, Cramer said. And then one day they always shoot it.

* Heroin provides the probably the best high of any drug in the world. A high, Cramer said, that users simply can’t find the words to describe.

* The stigma of heroin use is gone among the youth. In some circles it’s been replaced by a heroin chic.

“Kids are looking around and seeing themselves using it,” Cramer said.

* At the same time, the stigma of heroin use is as potent as it ever was among adults, the schools, and in the community. For that reason a lot of folks may simply refuse to see it as a problem in Duneland or even in Porter County. “There’s a profound shame” associated with heroin use, Cramer said, and “because of that shame the numbers are suppressed. You don’t see it in the newspapers.” Or at least not in the Illinois newspapers.

Once upon a time the average heroin user was a black adult male in the inner city. That trend is now being set on its head: more and more heroin users are under 18, they’re from middle-class or upper-class families, and increasingly they’re females.

Most of the community only knows the obvious impact of heroin use: the fatal overdoses, the street crime, the strain on the criminal justice system. But the impact on the families of addicts is godawful, Cramer said. From the dark night of the soul, as seen by the parents of junkies:

* “They sell everything that’s not bolted down to get their $200 a day.”

* “I’ve called my son’s dealer to find out where he is.”

* “You don’t know what to do to save their life.”

* “It breaks the soul of the family. You never sleep. You only wonder if you’re going to get the call.”

* “You pray they’ll get arrested.”

* “You begin to think that relapses are your punishment for hoping.”

Cramer’s last piece of advice to attendees on Wednesday--before they broke into small groups to begin the conversation--was this: there’s a tendency in a community grappling with the drug problem to go off on tilt, to do something, anything, just to be doing something. Don’t, Cramer said. Don’t do something that won’t work or is counterproductive, simply to be able to say that you’re making an effort.

The best approaches, Cramer said, will stick to science, rely on data, balance specific short-term initiatives with long-term ones, and will involve the community in a unified plan.



Posted 5/22/2014




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