Awareness of heroin prevalence, help for users emphasized by Public Safety
With an increase in heroin use and availability, Parkland’s Public Safety office hopes to spread awareness about the issue and urges those suffering from
addiction to seek help in freeing themselves from the opioid’s clutches.
With the heroin epidemic that’s occurring, is Parkland dealing with the same thing?” asked William Colbrook, Director of Public Safety and chief of Parkland’s police. “The answer is ‘yes.’”
Colbrook remembers there has been at least one heroin overdose on Parkland’s campus. This particular case occurred last semester.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin is part of the opioid family of drugs, which are also known as narcotics. It is highly addictive and “can be injected, inhaled by snorting or sniffing, or smoked.” It is based on morphine, a powerful pain medication often used in hospital environments or to produce other prescription painkillers.
Heroin quickly reaches the brain and binds itself to opioid receptors, which in the brain stem are responsible for the regulation of processes such as breathing. If a user’s automatic respiration is interrupted, it can result in a reduction of oxygen that gets to the brain, which in turn may result in brain damage or even death.
Use during pregnancy can be particularly deadly to an unborn child, and in some cases may even cause “spontaneous abortion,” according to the NIDA.
The appeal of heroin comes in what users describe as a rush of warmth and euphoria, followed by extreme relaxation and lethargy.
Colbrook says the rise in the availability and use of heroin stems from addiction to prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin. Just like in heroin the main ingredient in Oxycontin is an opioid, in the case of the latter oxycodone—which can be highly addictive in its own right.
Being in the same drug family, heroin is often sought after by those suffering from opioid addiction as cheaper substitutes to painkillers.
“You can actually get the current form of heroin on the street cheaper than you can an Oxyconti,” Colbrook said.
The NIDA seconds this: “Nearly half of young people who inject heroin surveyed in three recent studies reported abusing prescription opioids before starting to use heroin,” the NIDA’s heroin information webpage reads. “Some individuals reported taking up heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioids.”
Colbrook first became a police officer 29 years ago, and he says the prevalence of heroin today is nothing like it was then; it is now far more common, and in larger amounts.
“Way back when I first started, if you found heroin in the raw form, that was an oddity,” Colbrook said. “It was always in a small dose and it was rare. The heroin today is not the same as the heroin from 30 years ago.”
The most common types of heroin are in a white powder—which is its purest, or free base, form—a brown powder, and the infamous black tar heroin. The latter type is a less refined form and it often appears as a blackish, sticky, highly-viscous liquid; a solid rock, almost coal-like in appearance; or a fine brownish-black powder.
The NIDA reports that in 2011 the number of heroin users 12 years of age or older in the United States at 4.2 million, or 1.6 percent of this demographic.
Opioid use is on the rise in America, with the NIDA saying in 2012 there were 58 percent more first-time users of heroin than in 2006—an increase of 66,000 Americans. A grand total of 669,000 “reported using heroin in the past year.”
Champaign-Urbana is not exempt from this national trend. While exact numbers have been difficult to pin down, law enforcement agencies including the sheriff’s department, University of Illinois police, and Parkland’s own police—alongside area medical establishments, like the county coroner’s office, and penal institutions—agree they have seen an increase in heroin prevalence over recent years.
“So, yes: we have a problem,” Colbrook said. “It’s community-wide. It’s through all social strata, it’s through all financial strata; it’s a societal problem.”
With the increased incidence of heroin usage countywide, there is—accordingly—an increased risk of heroin-related medical issues on the Cobra campus. Parkland’s police force not only acts as such, but also serves as first responders to medical emergencies on-campus.
“If it’s strictly a medical issue where somebody has overdosed, we really put the police officer aspect to the side and we just want to keep that person alive, and get them the proper medical help,” Colbrook said.
While he understands heroin is a tough demon to exorcise, he reiterates that Public Safety is a police force and must enforce the law. That means in the instance someone is caught with heroin either with the intent to use or distribute, they must be subjected to the appropriate response according to the law, i.e. arrested.
“As a law enforcement officer, all we are strictly doing is enforcing the laws that are in the books,” Colbrook said. “We make every attempt not to make a judgment whether that’s a good law or a bad law.”
Colbrook supports the dissemination of information on heroin, referring particularly to public information campaigns launched by Parkland’s health services. However, he says there are people who hold that spreading information about heroin only advertises to users and draws in potential new users.
“I think public information is needed, but…I am aware that there’s this other camp that says, ‘Well, now you’re doing more harm than good,’” Colbrook said. “I think it’s been very, very important that the major news outlets…are putting it out there.”
He hopes more people read, watch, or listen to the news and become more aware that heroin is out there in the community and is a threat; he hopes those struggling with their addictions become inspired to get the help they need.
He added that if anybody requires assistance in finding a heroin—or any drug—addiction support group, he is more than happy to help them do so.
“I want them to get help,” Colbrook said. “The heroin epidemic is not something that can just be dismissed.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is but one of many government or non-profit organizations that operate 24/7, year-round, free-of-charge service lines that can help addiction sufferers find and access the medical services or support groups they need. The SAMHSA’s National Helpline can be reached—by both English and Spanish speakers—at 1-800-662-HELP.