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It’s commonly understood that prescription painkillers are a gateway drug to heroin—both drugs are in the opiate family and provide similar highs. But new research from Washington University School of Medicine is redefining what that means.

Rather than switching from prescription painkillers to heroin, the Washington University researchers have found that many people who try heroin also continue to abuse prescription opiates.

Bridgeway Behavioral Health Director Mike Morrison stands talks with two staff members at Bridgeway's detox center in St. Louis. More than 100 people are waiting to get into their 16 detox beds at any given time.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

(Part 3 of 3)

In November 2013 Kari Karidis was in her office at Collinsville High School when a local hospital called to tell her that her son Chaz was in cardiac arrest. When she arrived at the emergency room she was told her son had died. All she could do was go into his room and say goodbye.

“He still had the tube — the breathing tube in,” Karidis recalled, sitting in that same office earlier this year. “I just sat there. I don’t know how long. I just remember thinking I can’t look at this but I can’t leave.”

A dose of naloxone, the opiate overdose antidote.
Openfile Vancouver | Flickr

(Part 2 of 3)

Earlier this month, a new anti-heroin law went into effect in Illinois. The measure requires first responders to carry the opiate overdose antidote naloxone and expands the amount of addiction treatment paid for by Medicaid. But how the drugs and treatment will be paid for is unclear. State funding for addiction treatment is also in limbo as Illinois enters its 13th week without a budget.

Meanwhile, there have been a number of legislative attempts in recent years aimed at fighting the heroin epidemic in Missouri. But the only bill to become law is a measure allowing law enforcement to carry the overdose antidote. And so far very few police departments have taken advantage of the law.

Michael and Kelley McDonald and Laura and Pete Stenger reminisce about their sons Sean McDonald and Mitch Stenger at Cottleville Wine Seller in St. Charles County. Both Sean and Mitch died of heroin overdoses in 2014. Mitch used to work at the Wine Seller
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

(Part 1 of 3) - On an April morning in 2014, Kelley McDonald woke up in her suburban St. Charles home and went downstairs to remind her son Sean to take his bipolar medication.

“I go over to the couch and I kind of shake him and I’m like come on buddy you’ve got to take your medicine. And that’s when I looked at him and he was kind of blue and I started screaming,” said Kelley McDonald, her voice shaking as she sits next to her husband Michael at a restaurant gazebo one year later.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, right, and Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons take part in a roundtable on heroin abuse on Monday in Granite City.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin provided a fairly blunt reply to the proposition that the War on Drugs failed.

“By some measure, it has failed,” said Durbin, D-Ill. “If the measure is the cost of drugs on the street, it has failed. But when we look at the individual lives saved, there are certainly heroic great stories to be told. But we have to be honest about what works and what doesn’t.”

(via Flickr/Michael Velardo)

In St. Louis County, 36 people have died from a heroin overdose this year. Although the number is a 23 percent decrease from the 47 fatalities reported last June, there is still much to overcome.

Casey Lambert, a detective with the St. Louis County Police Department Bureau of Drug Enforcement, explained that raising awareness and reaching the right crowd is difficult. Many of the citizens who succumb to heroin addiction are often teens and young adults.

Co-directors Cory Byers (left) and Ashley Seering film additional footage in a nursing lab at SIU-Edwardsville. "The Heroin Project" premieres May 3.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated on July 21 to add information about the film's screening as part of the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. The co-directors were guests on "St. Louis on the Air."

When Ashley Seering and Cory Byers started gathering stories about heroin addiction and deaths in southern Illinois, the Edwardsville-based filmmakers didn’t realize it would turn into a feature-length documentary.

Members of the St. Louis Regional Heroin Initiative flank posters listing those arrested for heroin-related charges Wednesday, June 10, 2015 in the St. Charles City Police Department.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

More than 50 heroin traffickers have been arrested for crimes committed in St. Charles County. Most were arrested in a 30-hour period, bringing a swift conclusion to a ten-month collaborative investigation.

Since last fall state, local and federal authorities have been working together to bring about the arrests, representing what the head of the St. Louis region’s Drug Enforcement Agency described as a more proactive partnership than past collaborations.

(via Flickr/Michael Velardo)

There’s a new collaborative effort underway to slow down the St. Louis region’s heroin epidemic.

Spearheaded by the St. Louis chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the plan focuses on using innovative ways to increase awareness about the problem while partnering with legislators, law enforcement and doctors to save lives and reduce access to opiates—both heroin and prescription painkillers.

(via Flickr/Michael Velardo)

St. Louis has a heroin problem. New attention was brought to that problem during the Super Bowl, when the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse–St. Louis bought local airtime for a one-minute ad.

(via Flickr/Michael Velardo)

With hundreds of people in the greater St. Louis region dying each year from heroin overdoses, the St. Louis County Police Department is launching a new education initiative to raise public awareness of the drug's dangers.

The department's new heroin initiative Detective Casey Lambert said her role is to talk to people across the county, of all ages, about heroin - what it does to the body, why it's so dangerous, and how to recognize signs of addiction.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse – St. Louis is airing an anti-heroin ad (still shot shown) locally during the Super Bowl this Sunday.
Courtesy National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse – St. Louis Area

Among the much-anticipated Super Bowl commercials airing Sunday will be an anti-heroin ad created by a St. Louis area non-profit and a local ad agency.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse–St. Louis Area created the ad with the help of Schupp Consulting and local director Scott Ferguson to bring attention the region's growing heroin problem.

Heroin initiative detective said many teens are no longer afraid to take heroin because it now can be smoked or snorted rather than injected, eliminating the need for needles.
via Wikimedia

Missouri state Rep. Dave Hinson has seen first-hand what a lifesaver a heroin antidote can be.

Hinson, R-St. Clair, is a paramedic based in north St. Louis County. Just recently, he said, he used the antidote to save the life of a homeless man at a Metrolink stop who had apparently overdosed on heroin.

“It’s pretty simple to identify a heroin overdose, with the pinpoint pupils,” said Hinson. If the antidote is given soon enough – before the user has stopped breathing for several minutes – the effects of the heroin can be swiftly reversed.


The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on Saturday is sponsoring a nationwide prescription drug take-back event.

Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., anyone can turn in their expired or unwanted medications at thousands of police stations, pharmacies, and other sites across the country, including here in St. Louis.

(Derik Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat) / (http://www.bnd.com)

A former St. Clair County judge will spend two years in federal prison for federal drug and weapons charges. 

"When judges fall from grace, we expect them to land a little bit harder than the rest of us," said Judge Joe Billy McDade when he handed out the sentence to Michael Cook this afternoon. Cook pleaded guilty in November to heroin possession, and to being a drug user in possession of a firearm.

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

For Michael Shah of the Drug Enforcement Agency, children should have no expectation of privacy. That’s an especially important attitude for parents worried about their kids using heroin. 

During a speech before the Madison County heroin task force in Edwardsville on Friday, Shah said that parents shouldn’t be shy about looking through their children’s stuff – including their cars or their dirty clothes. Anything, he said, to detect heroin use as early as possible.

WBEZ/Luis Perea

St. Louis has a heroin problem. And the problem is growing, especially among suburban youth.

As previously reported by St. Louis Public Radio, the number of deaths in Missouri caused by heroin has doubled in recent years, with 90 percent of those deaths occurring in St. Louis.

(Derik Holtmann/Belleville News-Democrat) / (http://www.bnd.com)

A federal court in Illinois has rejected a plea agreement that would have sent former St. Clair County judge Michael Cook to prison for 18 months on drug and weapons charges.

Judge Joe McDade, who normally presides over federal cases in Peoria, Ill., told attorneys for both sides today that he did not believe the proposed sentence was long enough to assure St. Clair County residents that their judiciary was in good hands. McDade was assigned to the case after two judges from the Southern District recused themselves. 

(via Flickr/Michael Velardo)

The top two law enforcement officials in Madison County, Ill., say they want to hear from anyone and everyone who might have ideas about slowing the heroin epidemic in the county.

(via Flickr/Michael Velardo)

Experts who study drug trends say the presumed fatal heroin overdose of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman shines the spotlight anew on the need for society to come to grips with widespread heroin abuse across the nation and in St. Louis.

Among those who have studied the issue is Theodore “Ted” Cicero, a  professor in neuropharmacology in psychiatry at Washington University Medical School. He has tracked patient trends in 150 drug treatment facilities nationwide for more than seven years.