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Photos by Andrew Richards
Madison County Sheriff Robert Hertz stands next to paraphernalia associated with heroin. Items used in heroin addiction include pills, or “buttons,” metal spoons to heat the heroin powder, Dormin sleep medicine and syringes. Hertz and State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons are spearheading an effort to battle the heroin rise in Madison County.
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Photo by Andrew Richards
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons speaks recently at a press conference on combating the heroin epidemic.
Mitchell was pronounced dead multiple times, asphyxiated on his own vomit, lost his car and even was homeless for a while.
These “make you want to die” experiences are linked to a rising epidemic in Madison County: heroin addiction.
“There’s no turning back,” Mitchell O’Brien, 25, said of the addiction to the opiate-based drug that gripped him for 10 years.
O’Brien said once addicted, if users go too long without a “fix” their bones ache, they become sweaty and they can’t eat.
The St. Louis native became entangled with the drug when he started taking painkillers.
“It always starts with painkillers,” he said.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said at a press conference Thursday, Feb. 20, in the last three years in which he has taken initiative in combating heroin usage in the county, he has never seen any case where heroin addicts did not progress from painkillers to heroin.
“I remember growing up as a kid and the image that you had of a heroin junkie was somebody with a needle sticking in their arm in an alley. As a young kid, I had that negative association,” Gibbons said. “We had a period of time when heroin was absent from our society. There was a gap in our education and what we found is a lot of young people hadn’t been taught about heroin. They didn’t know anything about it. They didn’t have an automatic response to it like I grew up with.”
Madison County Sheriff Robert Hertz said addressing the problem of heroin usage has changed from keeping younger kids in the loop about the drug’s dangers to worrying about adults becoming addicts.
A recent case attributed three deaths overnight to possible heroin overdoses. Two men, ages 38 and 40, and a woman, 29, died in their homes in Roxana, Granite City and Collinsville.
“Our dilemma with this is either you have to address it on the supply side or the demand side or both,” Hertz said. “Again, that’s easier said than done. It’s such a lucrative trade that probably for every drug dealer you take off the street, there’s more than two that will take his or her place.
“With this country being so porous, getting it before it comes into the country is easier said than done as well.”
‘It tears lives apart’
A Madison County jail inmate, a heroin addict for four years before he quit in November 2011, said heroin permeated the county through St. Louis.
The Granite City native said deals would go down on the Missouri side of McKinley Bridge, and when St. Louis Police started cracking down in that area, operations moved to the Missouri side of the Interstate 270 bridge.
“It was almost like the old crack deals that would go down,” he said of heroin pickups. “There would be guys on the corner. You pull up and stop at a corner and the guys would come up to your car.”
The inmate said people connected with dealers would hand out phone numbers in gas stations. A user would place a call and the dealer would tell the user to go multiple places before finally meeting up.
In part, the inmate said this tactic allows users to be followed to make sure police are not tailing them.
“He’ll have you do this and have you go four or five different places,” the inmate said. “And then he’ll call when you get there and meet up. And then finally, you’ll meet in the car and he’ll pull up beside you. You’ll hand off in the car.”
The inmate said a pill, or “button,” of heroin normally costs $5; pain killer medication is more expensive.
“At first heroin is cheaper, but your tolerance for heroin in chasing that rush goes up real quick,” he said.
The inmate said he took one pill of heroin in the beginning and the rush lasted half a day or more. When he finally stopped using heroin, he was up to seven pills at a time, and the rush would only last a couple of hours.
He said types of heroin he’s seen on the market include the “buttons” and raw heroin, known by some as “China.” The raw brand, he said, could cost anywhere from $80 up to $200 a gram and could come in a bluish-gray or mocha color.
“It had kind of a vinegary smell to it,” the inmate said. He said Dormin, a sleep medicine, often is mixed with the heroin when it is melted down, to give it more potency.
Gibbons quoted Drug Enforcement Agency statistics saying today's raw heroin is three times as potent than it was in 2000.
And while it was more often snorted, smoked or ingested back in the day, injection is now the standard technique after pills, Gibbons said.
“When you start doing heroin, your life starts to fall apart,” the inmate said. “It tears lives apart.”
The inmate was in a car accident a decade ago and broke his shoulder blade. He started using Vicodin as ordered by the doctor.
“After they took me off Vicodin, I still liked them,” he said, “so I started buying them on the black market. Then the pain kill medication led up later to heroin.”
‘An unacceptable circumstance’
Madison County officials have set up a task force to “study the effectiveness of past efforts to fight the (heroin) problem, assess the problem’s current status in the county and develop a future plan of action to help reduce addiction and save lives.”
In the last five years, there have been 94 heroin-related deaths in Madison County.
Among those initially being asked to join the task force are Coroner Steve Nonn, U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton, local police chiefs, addiction treatment providers, representatives from Madison County Probation and Drug Court, local health care providers and representatives from federal law enforcement agencies.
The task force is not Gibbons’ first crusade to stop illegal drugs in the county. The state’s attorney, along with Wigginton, became involved in a federal and local initiative to battle heroin in the Metro East in 2011.
The movement created a team of local and federal law enforcement agencies, coroners and prosecutors coming together and “pooling their efforts and resources” to prosecute individuals dealing illegal drugs that result in great bodily harm or death.
In 2012, Gibbons also joined the national campaign Lock Your Meds – a program designed to encourage adults “to closely monitor prescription and over-the-counter medications to keep them out of the hands of teens and young adults.”
“From my own point of view as a father, I see this (heroin epidemic) as an unacceptable circumstance,” Gibbons said. “I can’t leave the community in the state that it is in and watch my kids grow up in this community. I don’t think I’m different than any other parent. We have got to deal with this.”
An information session on the task force will be held at 1 p.m. Friday, March 7, in the Madison County Board Room in the County Administration building.