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Opioid Task Force Continues To Search For Tools To Reduce Deaths In Illinois

Jenna Dooley
Dixon-area panelists discuss ways to combat opioid-related deaths in the state

The statistics are sobering. Opioid overdoses have killed nearly 11,000 people in Illinois since 2008. Last year alone, that number was nearly 2,000 -- twice the number of fatal car crashes. State officials estimate that number will continue to explode.

There are many players trying to address addiction head-on. That includes emergency responders, police officers, treatment centers, and family members themselves.

Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti (left) IDPH Director Nirav Shah (right)

The Governor’s Opioid Task Force, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Nirav Shah, has been holding a listening tour around the state. A recent stop in Dixon re-affirmed the issue hits both urban and rural populations.

Danny Langloss is the current City Manager of Dixon and the city’s former Police Chief. He says in March, 2015, Dixon had three overdose deaths from heroin within 10 days.

After that wake-up call, officers initiated theSafe Passage program. In exchange for turning in drugs at the police or sheriff's department, officers have created a direct pipeline to get that person into treatment; the person will not be arrested or charged with a crime.

Langloss says the foundation of the program involved meeting with addiction experts in northern and central Illinois to learn more about the steps involved in the treatment process.

“The first goal was to help change and shape the way law enforcement views addiction," Langloss explained. "The second goal was to get people immediate access to treatment when they come in and they ask for help and they need help. The third goal is to get the attention of state and federal lawmakers to really look at some changes in this system and in this process.”

Lee County State’s Attorney Matthew Klahn agrees that many of the people who abuse drugs are not an imminent threat to the community.

“Right now I can tell you there are at least two people in the Lee County jail that I know who should not be there," Klahn said. "I just don’t have an alternative. I don’t have that tool right now.”

He explains it’s a complex problem.

“In any community, you are going to have a small percentage of the population that I would consider criminals. Those are the people who need to be out of society," Klahn told the panel. "There is a little larger population that even the thought of getting a traffic ticket horrifies them to such a degree that they probably have never even bent the law in their life."

In the middle, he said, there are varying degrees of non-violent individuals who make mistakes. "Many of these people suffer from addiction," he said. "It is this population that we must help to get back to useful citizenship.”

Nikki Massini now works in the Lee County Public Defender’s office. She has been in recovery for more than a decade. At her worst, she told the panel, each day was a struggle as she and her then-boyfriend tried desperately to get high.

“Everything in our life revolved around getting heroin," Massini said. "It wasn’t fun anymore. It became a 24 hour job. The physical addiction to heroin is just as big as the addiction itself. If we didn’t have the drug, we would shoot up water just to feel the needle.”

She says the first year of sobriety was the most difficult because of the constant urges, and feelings of boredom without the drug.

“I just kept telling myself that I wanted my family and that I needed my family," Massini said. "They were the ones who were there to get me through this process of staying sober."

Linda Wegner is the mother of a patient in recovery, and volunteers with the Safe Passage program. She says many things are needed to combat the crisis -- for starters, shorter wait times to get into treatment.

Credit Jenna Dooley
Lee County State's Attorney Matthew Klahn (left) Safe Passage volunteer Linda Wegner (center) Nikki Massini (right)

“We need more inpatient beds closer than an hour and a half away," she said. "We need more local sober homes so people can transition to jobs and the community. We need fully-funded Medicaid, and not removing requirements for insurance companies to cover those essential services like substance use disorders and mental health disorders.”

More beds would require more money. State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, told the panelists she was uncomfortable bringing up the topic of legalizing marijuana, but acknowledged its potential to bring in more dollars to the state.

Langloss, the former police chief, called it a dangerous solution.

“I think we are sending the wrong message to our children when we continue to legalize drugs,” Langloss answered.

Wegner also shared hesitations about legalizing one drug to help solve abuse of another.

“Especially when people use marijuana to mask something else,” Wegner said.

Patrick Phelan is the CEO of Sinnissippi Centers, which offers outpatient services for mental health and substance use disorders in Carroll, Lee, Ogle and Whiteside Counties. He said whatever the task force comes up with, systemic solutions are needed.

“This kind of initiative isn’t sustainable forever just based on commitment and caring deeply about it, especially if the players change, or the resources change," Phelan cautioned. "One of the things I would like to appeal to all of us to think about is how we support these efforts going forward. How do we institutionalize local grassroots efforts?”

That discussion will be part of the next steps after hearing from stakeholders around the state. The listening tour has also included stops in Woodstock, Decatur, Chicago, and Urbana.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.