"Getting drugs is as easy as getting toothpaste"

Jesse Presley, 53, a recovering drug addict, lives and works at the Haymarket Center treatment facility in the West Loop neighborhood. | Credit: Geoff Dougherty
  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • August 10, 2009 @ 7:00 AM

With his first taste of alcohol and first puff of marijuana at 12, Darryl Thompson got hooked on drugs. His addiction to cocaine and heroin led to crime, which put him in jail for a spell. He lived on the streets and couldn’t hold a job.

The drugs, says Thompson, were easy to find.

“Just as easy as it is to go to the liquor store to buy a six pack or a pack of cigarettes,” says Thompson, 53, who has been sober for 17 years and now runs the Men’s Residential Treatment program for Haymarket Center. “Even if you’re 13.”

Thompson exemplifies a grim statistic: A recent report issued by the White House Office of Drug Policy shows that Chicago leads the nation in the number of people arrested under the influence of drugs.

The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring report, released this spring, showed 76 percent of people booked at Cook County Jail in 2008 tested positive for some type of illegal drug -- far eclipsing the other nine cities included in the voluntary study.

The other cities were Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Denver, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Ore., Sacramento and Washington. The study used urinalysis and personal interviews to determine the rankings.

So why is Chicago number one?

Kelvy Brown, director of substance abuse and tobacco control programs for the Chicago Department of Public Health, notes that Chicago, with its central location and busy airports, is a clearinghouse of sorts for drugs.

"They come to us because we're at the crossroads of the county," he says.

And getting drugs isn't difficult, says Leo Miller, a vice president with Haymarket Center.

“I’m 60 years old, and in my lifetime, getting drugs is as easy as getting toothpaste at Walgreen’s, if you know what you’re looking for,” says Miller.

Combine easy access to drugs with factors including sub-standard housing, poverty, few jobs and a general sense of hopelessness, and you have a sum for Chicago's drug problem.

Though prisoners go off drugs during incarceration, they face conditions that can push them back into the drug world when they are released.

"Now they're coming back into Chicago communities with no housing, no health care, except for the county hospital and CDPH clinics, and no employment," Brown says. "It's really a Catch-22."

That’s what happened to Toi Mack, who says her heroin and crack habits spurred her to commit robberies that landed her in prison. When she was released in 2002, she had no job, no home and no family.

On the first day she was released, she says she got high.

“The only thing I knew to do was get high,” says Mack, 43, who is now sober and a supervisor at Haymarket Center’s Sangamon House. “I went right back to the only thing I knew how to do.”

Brown says Chicago's drug treatment programs enjoy higher rates of success than the national average -- 60 percent compared to about 50 percent nationwide. But the city and its partner clinics have trouble tracking drug users.

"Many people can successfully complete a treatment program, but folks really want to see what happens to them three to six months later," he says.

Dr. Lena Hatchett, an associate professor of preventative medicine and epidemiology at Loyola University Medical School, says the weight of joblessness, poverty and crime can be an “insurmountable obstacle” for community members.

“Now you add drugs on top of that. The attitude is, ‘There is nothing we can do. There isn’t prevention and there isn’t recovery,’” she says. Rather, many drug users end up in jail, instead of treatment centers.

She points to a recent Columbia University study that showed Illinois spends less than 1 percent of the substance abuse budget on drug prevention and treatment. That’s compared to nearly 4 percent on the judicial and incarceration processes for drug offenders.

People “wonder why things are escalating. We have to look at the problems to see where we’re spending our money,” she says.

The White House ADAM II study, a descendent of earlier drug studies performed by the Department of Justice, declares the need to divert non-violent drug offenders to drug treatment programs rather than prison.

“Incarcerating offenders without treating underlying substance-abuse problems simply defers the time when they are released back into our communities to start harming themselves and our communities again,” said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Policy, in a press release in late May.

Terry Zobeck, a deputy research director in the drug policy office, says the research shows that arrestees consume a disproportionate amount of the nation’s illegal drug supply. Studies show that between 6 and 7 percent of the general population use drugs. That compares to the White House report showing 76 percent of men booked in the Cook County jail were using drugs.

“They don’t have very high rates of treatment, and so this is a population that is ripe for a treatment option – a drug corps,” that focuses solely on treatment, he says.

Hatchett says prevention starts with community collaboration.

“One agency can’t do it in their little silo,” she says.

Rev. Dr. Reginald Saffo is executive director for ministerial alliance with the Proviso Action Committee, a year-old venture that is fighting to curb violence and drug use in suburban Cook's Proviso, while helping ex-offenders reintegrate to society. It’s a collaboration of churches, law enforcement and community groups.

Saffo says much of the drug use results from a cycle of hopelessness.

“When they can’t find jobs or when things don’t open up to them, it discourages them…so they resort back to the use of drugs,” he says.

The Proviso Action Committee, he says, gives ex-offenders job training and other services.

It’s all an effort to break the cycle, he says.

“It’s a vicious cycle, but I think that over time it can be eradicated,” he says. But it will take a vast effort to do so."




Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.