After years of trying to reduce the use of illegal drugs by cutting off the supply chain, Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim is trying to cut demand as well.
Nerheim, along with other law enforcement officials and health care providers, launched a countywide program June 1 offering treatment initiation for anyone with a narcotic or alcohol addiction at any hour of the day or night.
“For a long time law enforcement has been arresting dealers to reduce the supply in the war on drugs,” Nerheim said. “If you can (through treatment) reduce the number of people buying the drugs there will be less demand.”
The new program, a creation of the Lake County Opioid Initiative dubbed A Way Out, lets people walk into any participating police station in Lake County, say they want treatment, and get into a program without fear of prosecution arising from their addiction, according to Nerheim. It gives them an alternative to entering the criminal justice system.
If a person arrives with drugs or paraphernalia, the items will be confiscated and destroyed but there will be no arrests or prosecution for having them, according to Nerheim.
Lake Forest is the only participating police station in southeast Lake County at the moment but both Highland Park and Deerfield will be part of it in the next few months, according to Cindy Vargas, the communications manager for the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Using police stations as a place where people can go to begin their treatment program is critical because they are open 24 hours a day 365 days a year, according to Lake Forest Police Commander Craig Lepkowski.
“It’s a great idea,” Lepkowski said. “We can help people when (they decide) they are ready for treatment. There can be a very narrow window between the time they decide they want treatment and they change their mind. This is not just for opioids. It’s for alcohol too.”
Before launching the program, Nerheim said focus groups were conducted to learn more about people with drug addictions. He said they could be feeling bad, unable to get their drug of choice and decide they want to change their lives through treatment. A few hours later drugs could be available and they no longer want to seek treatment.
“At 7 p.m. they may decide they want treatment but when the next day comes they had a change of mind,” Nerheim said. “That desire for treatment may last only 15 minutes and we want to capture it.”
Treatment will begin the moment the person walks through the police station door, said Lepkowski. He said someone at the station will get the perspective patient on the phone with a counselor to determine what kind of treatment is best.
“We’ll give them a ride there if they need it,” Lepkowski said. “Someone will sit with them until it’s time to transport them.”
Economics will not be an issue either, according to Nerheim. He said people with insurance or the means to pay will be expected to do that but the Lake County Opioid Initiative will find a way for the rest.
“All the hospitals and treatment centers in Lake County are part of the Lake County Opioid Initiative,” Nerheim said. “If a person truly wants treatment there will be a way. They have to make the decision.”
A Way Out is another step toward helping people with drug addiction along with arming police officers and other first responders with Naloxone, an antidote for a heroin overdose. Since Dec. 25, 2014, 83 lives have been saved in Lake County as a result, according to Nerheim.