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Madison County Officials Detail Strategy To Combat Heroin Use

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

For Michael Shah of the Drug Enforcement Agency, children should have no expectation of privacy. That’s an especially important attitude for parents worried about their kids using heroin. 

During a speech before the Madison County heroin task force in Edwardsville on Friday, Shah said that parents shouldn’t be shy about looking through their children’s stuff – including their cars or their dirty clothes. Anything, he said, to detect heroin use as early as possible.

“Most cases where a heroin overdose has occurred, there have been clear ties from the individual’s phone to the dealer,” said Shah, an intelligence analyst at the DEA’s Fairview Heights office. “I’m asking parents to be more involved in their children’s lives.”

“They’re communicating through text messages, Facebook, Twitter – whatever,” he added. “There are no more pay phones.”

Both Shah and Madison County Coroner Stephen Nonn spoke before the task force about their experiences dealing with the aftermath of heroin use. Madison County Sheriff Bob Hertz and prosecutor Tom Gibbons launched the task force last month to bring public attention to the drug’s dangers.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Gibbons said. “We’ve got to deal with it from every possible angle. And today was a first step.”

Nonn said the numbers speak to a growing problem: Madison County had 22 heroin deaths in 2013, compared to seven in 2009.

“I’ve been the coroner since 2000 and before that I was in the sheriff’s office in Madison County for 26 years,” Nonn said. “I don’t recall anything in that 40-year span as urgent of a need to be dealt with as this issue right now with the heroin problem we’re experiencing in Madison County.  

Nonn says heroin is being used across racial, socioeconomic and educational lines. And he suggested that the perception of the drug is rapidly changing.

“There was a time when heroin was the back-alley, rubber band around the arm, shooting it up,” Nonn said. “Because of the purity of the heroin that’s coming into this area now, you can actually snort it. So now the kids they’re equating it with cocaine – hey, this is cool.” 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
The crowd in Edwardsville.

Shah said the keys to combating heroin use are a mixture of detoxification, counseling and long-term treatment. Both Nonn and Shah said that schools should start teaching children in grade school about the dangers of heroin use.

“Once you start heroin, it’s too late,” Shah said. “We want to start educating our children at a fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade level and letting them know what the drugs, where they’re coming from and not to use them."

“It’s killing kids,” he added. “So as soon as they understand that at an earlier age, it’s reinforcing their behavior.”

The next task force meeting, Gibbons said, is expected to focusing on treating addiction to the drug. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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