Nationwide, the opioid epidemic has gotten worse since being declared a national emergency in 2017. That year, 70,237 people died of a drug overdose in the United States. This number ballooned to over 100,000 people in 2021 (more than the populations of the cities of Crystal Lake, Woodstock and McHenry combined).
The experts are baffled. Despite the growth in the availability of drug rehabilitation, substitution therapies and harm reduction services, all built around the premise that substance abuse is singularly a disease that should only be treated by a medical or other credentialed expert, the disaster continues to spiral. Spiraling most precipitously in those places, such as Chicago, most committed to diverting drug use and abuse away from the criminal justice system.
Despite the fact the War on Drugs has been over for 10-plus years, it is still being blamed and scapegoated. As a society, we have overhauled our response to substance abuse such that treatment referral is the principal response and has been so for quite some time. We did this because we were assured that, though crime had hit all-time lows in the early 2000s and the number of illicit drug users who had used in the last 30 days had been cut nearly in half between the years 1979 and 1999, the War on Drugs was the most replete policy calamity in modern times and has caused far more harm than good. We were promised that a far more humane response to drug distribution and use, where we just have to understand that users might deal drugs to support their own habits, would reduce substance abuse, save money otherwise spent on imprisoning users and leave a gilded trail of lives restored. But again, things got worse, and then worse still.
Instead of self-evaluation, the instinct of many is to double-down. “The reforms haven’t gone far enough or been pursued with sufficient purity – onward to safe injection sites and full drug legalization.”
In McHenry County, unlike the United States and surrounding counties, our overdose deaths have been trending down.
I believe this is due to a balanced approach that works in tandem. We have dramatically expanded the opportunities for treatment while at the same time enhancing criminal accountability for the unwilling.
The incredible story of how far we have come as a community in terms of treatment infrastructure is not told nearly often enough. Since 2016, we have gone from virtually zero residential treatment beds to over 143 today. Police departments have become access points for treatment through the A Way Out Program, linking well over 600 people with rehabilitation services. Social workers now accompany police on calls involving substance abuse. Free distribution of Narcan, the overdose reversal drug, to every police officer in the county has saved hundreds of lives.
On the criminal justice side, the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office began aggressively prosecuting and taking off the streets dealers whose drugs kill our residents with drug-induced homicide charges, an offense with a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. Since 2017 and thanks to the tireless work of law enforcement, we have charged 73 drug-induced homicide cases. Kane County has charged four since 2019. We seek prison for all opioid dealers, high bonds and pretrial drug testing for anyone possessing opioids, and jail for failed drug screens. In short, we treat illicit opioid users who refuse to access or cooperate with treatment as the potential mortal danger they are to themselves and often others.
We acknowledge ours is not the gentlest path and that anyone suffering from substance abuse is a person worthy of our compassion and, if truly willing, our best recovery efforts. We believe, however, that the criminal justice is not nor ever was broken — far from it — and that it has a prominent role to play in responding to this devastating epidemic. We believe further that the loss of a life is an infinite injury that must be set against with all available means, even those not currently fashionable.
• Patrick Kenneally is the McHenry County state’s attorney.