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Madison County Launches Task Force To Combat Heroin Epidemic

(via Flickr/Michael Velardo)

The top two law enforcement officials in Madison County, Ill., say they want to hear from anyone and everyone who might have ideas about slowing the heroin epidemic in the county.

Sheriff Bob Hertz and prosecutor Tom Gibbons outlined their plans for a task force on Thursday, about one week after three county residents died of suspected heroin overdoses. In neighboring St. Clair County, two Belleville residents are also believed to have overdosed on heroin on Monday, but officials do not think the cases are related.

The task force will include federal and local law enforcement; healthcare and addiction treatment providers; and state legislators.

"We're going to bring together at these public meetings information from the different constituencies to educate us, to educate the public so that we can all come together and craft some unique, concrete solutions to the problem," Gibbons said.

The broader approach is designed to address some of the shortcomings of a 2011 law enforcement initiative. That effort had Gibbons, his federal counterpart Steve Wigginton, local police agencies and the county coroner pooling resources to prosecute individuals who distributed heroin.

"You can't arrest yourself out of a drug epidemic," Gibbons said. "You need treatment. You need education. You need enforcement. But there are bound to be other solutions and other things that we can be doing that we don't know about and that's why we're asking so many to come together." Wigginton has agreed to be a part of this broader task force.

Stark statistics

Numbers provided by Gibbons's office show why he and Hertz are concerned. Heroin killed 22 people in 2013 - more than three times the number that died just four years earlier. Last year, 170 people faced heroin charges, although it was not clear if those were for possession of the drug  or included other crimes like stealing that are often connected to heroin.  

Usage is also moving from high-school students into middle-age populations. Many got addicted because it was cheaper than pain pills they have been prescribed.

Hertz says he and Gibbons are going to do everything they can to make sure that the discussions yield results - not just another report.

"We may not find the solution. But once this gets going, we will give the information to the media, what we think are things we should be doing," he said. "We want this to be a very constructive, fast-moving process. We have to talk about it in order to find a possible better path."

The state of Illinois plans to create own task force, which will begin taking testimony in the spring. Both Hertz and Gibbons say that's too long to wait. The first public meeting of the Madison County task force is March 7.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.