DIXON – Heroin is on the rise in America; there's no question about it. And the Sauk Valley is just as susceptible to its invasion as any other area in the nation.
Some Lee County officials are coming together to try to prevent just that.
The latest development in their plan to staunch the spread of the drug into this area is the creation of a heroin-specific anti-drug program that will be started throughout Lee County schools in the fall.
The program is the brainchild of both Lee County State's Attorney Anna Sacco-Miller and Ashton Chief of Police Darrell Farringer.
"I've had the idea for a long time but haven't had time to put anything together," Sacco-Miller said. "So when [Farringer] came to me and told me that he wanted to do this in Ashton-Franklin Grove schools, and said he wanted to have a uniform program that other areas could use, too, in the county, I told him I would be 100 percent on board and that I would be talking to some of the other chiefs to see if they would join us."
Since Sept. 1, 2007, local police have made more than 80 arrests for heroin and have seen more than 20 heroin overdoses.
Just in the past month, a rural Lee County man fatally overdosed, Sacco-Miller said.
'It's the trend right now'
During an interview last fall, Dixon Police Sgt. Matt Richards said the drug was affecting a surprising demographic: young people – high schoolers, even.
“It seems like they’re skipping alcohol and skipping marijuana and going straight to heroin,” Richards said. “We’ve heard rumors of 16-, 17-year-olds. It’s just the trend right now. Ten years ago, it was Ecstasy.”
Whiteside County has seen an increase, too. Where 5 years ago there was no heroin, recently Rock Falls Police Chief Mike Kuelper and Sterling Police Chief Ron Potthoff have seen it come up in their drug investigations.
“For years, you didn’t hear of heroin around here,” Potthoff said in the fall. “But if you look at Lee and Whiteside counties, it’s here now.”
In Sterling, the numbers are smaller than in Rock Falls, but they’re there: three cases involving heroin since 2009.
In a previous Sauk Valley Media article, Kuelper said the increase in Rock Falls had been steady. His department has handled at least six cases since 2011 – but none before that.
“We’re assuming we’re going to see more,” he said then. “It’s become the drug of choice.”
If all goes according to plan, Lee County schools will start the program during Red Ribbon Week, which falls during the last week of October.
Sacco-Miller said she has been in touch with the director of Lee and Ogle counties' Regional Office of Education, and that she plans to speak with other law enforcement agencies in the area to see whether they want to be involved.
"But I can't imagine they'd say no," she said.
For his part, Farringer said he had been in touch with school principals at Ashton and Franklin Grove.
"[Heroin] is starting to really get a foothold here," Farringer said. "And my thing is the first time that a young person in town has heroin, I don't want their education about it to come from the person they're encountering it with. ... Kids know about alcohol, they know about marijuana, but if you ask a kid about heroin, they don't really know about it. The time to get an education about it for the first time is not at a party."
'Everyone's just putting blinders up'
In January, the Dixon Police Department started a pilot program to see whether it was worthwhile to create a specific division to combat street crimes, with a particular emphasis on the sale of heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy.
After just a few short months, and with the arrest of a man whom Chief Danny Langloss called one of the largest heroin distributors in the area, the division was made permanent.
Farringer and Sacco-Miller hope to bring in successful graduates of Lee County's drug court program to talk with students about their experiences with heroin.
"In my dream world, I'd like to have the [drug court] graduates – the ones that have been through the program, who are now living clean, sober lives – come talk about their experiences," Sacco-Miller said, “because it's a lot more impactful coming from people who have been there and done that."
Farringer said youths have told him that heroin is here.
"I've talked to kids who have seen heroin at parties, and that's what really hit home for me," Farringer said. "These kids are seeing it at parties, and everyone's just putting blinders up and not really realizing that this is the future for us.
"Losing even one kid would destroy everybody."