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Heroin: Small cities, even rural towns face growing problems

For many communities, the extent of heroin addiction comes as a shock. Yet efforts to confront it, including town-hall meetings and support groups, are slowly gaining ground.

By Richard MertensCorrespondent / January 25, 2013



Chicago

For years, heroin was considered an affliction mainly of poor urban neighborhoods. But these days, the drug is becoming popular in affluent suburbs, small cities, and even rural towns – especially among young people.

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From Arizona to New Jersey, many communities that never imagined they would have a heroin problem now face a rising toll of addiction, overdoses, and even deaths.

“You would have to go pretty remote to find a place that didn’t have this,” says Kathleen Kane-Willis, a researcher at Roosevelt University in Chicago who has tracked heroin use since 2004. “It’s just everywhere.”

But for communities and in particular parents, the problem can come as a total surprise.

Take Tamara Olt and her husband, who were vacationing in Mexico last April when they got the call that every parent dreads. One of their sons was lying unconscious in his basement room at the family’s home in Dunlap, a small town in central Illinois.

Joshua Olt died in the emergency room that evening. He was 16.

“Heroin was the biggest shock of my life,” says Dr. Olt, an obstetrician and gynecologist. “The drug had never crossed my mind.”

Yet as more communities realize they have a problem, efforts to confront it are slowly gaining ground. Concerned parents, school administrators, and law-enforcement officials are holding town-hall meetings, forming support groups, and starting campaigns to discourage heroin use.

“We recognize that this is an emerging problem,” says Dianne McDonald, a curriculum director at two Joliet, Ill., high schools. “We want to be proactive.”

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, heroin use in the United States rose 66 percent between 2007 and 2011. The US Drug Enforcement Administration says seizures of heroin have doubled since 2008, and arrests have risen by a third. Most heroin comes from Asia, but more and more is arriving from South America and Mexico.

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