Heroin Spike in Southern Illinois

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By Benjy Jeffords
By Sam Jones

WSIL -- Police across our region have seen a dramatic increase in heroin use over the past year, and it's claiming lives.

Many departments are now shifting from meth prevention to stopping the spread of heroin. The drug's easy to get a hold of, cheaper than ever, hard to detect, and addicts have found new ways to ingest it. Officials say the epidemic can't be ignored.

“It's becoming a monster, totally different than methamphetamine because there's no labs involved,” said Undercover Drug Agent Tom McNamara.

Heroin’s the beast that took hold of Energy’s E.J. Rojas.

“I stole from my family and friends you know just to have drugs,” he admitted.

It turned his life upside down. Rojas lived on the streets at one point, doing anything to get a high.

“People on heroin, they'll sell their own soul to get a fix,” Rojas said.

He relied on prescription pills until regulators cracked down.

“That’s when everybody I knew started switching to heroin. It just blew up. It was a lot cheaper, a lot stronger,” Rojas added.

McNamara says users often modify heroin.

“In years past you had to shoot it into your vein. Now you can smoke it, or you can insufflate it, which means snort it,” added McNamara

That means the stigma of using a needle is eliminated, and there's often a higher concentration of heroin in those hits too.

“Easy to get, yes it is. Yes it is,” he said.

The drug is grown in Mexico now, and then brought north of the border. It's spreading in our region.

“It’s creepin’ its way across the river from by east St. Louis,” Rojas explained.

Rojas has been clean for almost a year. Rock bottom was losing his younger brother to a heroin overdose, as they got high together. Yet overcoming the physical addiction was harder than he ever imagined.

“I actually had to have drugs in me to be able to go to work and not be throwing up all over the place,” Rojas conceded.

His baby girl gives him inspiration to never return down that dark road. Rojas hid a heroin addiction from everyone, and wants parents to know how easily it can be done.

“If you think just because you go to church or you know you obey the law, that your son or daughter isn't using heroin, you're just ignorant,” Rojas urged.

“We have to push ourselves to keep up with it because there's a lot of overdoses happening. People are dying in Southern Illinois and many, many other places,” McNamara advised.

McNamara says we have to tackle heroin use from many angles: law enforcement, education and consequences from state's attorneys.

You can look for signs of an addict like used syringes, plastic baggies with one corner cut out, or people trying to hide their arms where they may shoot up. Heroin is a physical addiction, which often requires professional help.  Rojas said he couldn't quit without that kind of help. He went to rehab and still gets counseling from the H Group. It'll be a lifelong battle to stay away from heroin.

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