During the 1950s, about 50 to 60 people died on the roads every year in LaSalle County. To focus attention on the carnage, The Daily Republican-Times in Ottawa kept a running count on the front page.
In 2017 in LaSalle County, there were 179 opioid overdoses, with 40 fatal, compared to 18 traffic deaths. To compare the totals for the other counties of the Illinois Valley, there were only three opioid overdoses in Bureau County and two in Putnam County in 2017. Statewide during that period, there was a total of 2,202 opioid overdoses.
As of Dec. 20, 2018, 109 overdoses were reported in LaSalle County, with 32 county residents having died, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
A state spokeswoman cautioned these numbers could rise, because data from the second half of 2018 was still being reported.
Keeping count of each opioid death on front page of a newspaper would be out of step with current attitudes, but other efforts are underway.
After a slowdown a few years ago, the Tri-County Drug Enforcement Narcotics Team has come back strong, popping up all over the region to make drug busts. The agents then deliver defendants to the court system, where LaSalle County State’s Attorney Karen Donnelly has vowed to treat addicts with more subtlety.
A chief component of her approach is drug court, to be followed by mental health court, although the two may prove to be almost interchangeable. Fewer people claim these days drug abuse is a moral failing. Instead, the view is taking hold that drug abusers need help, not handcuffs.
A law that took effect Jan. 1 in Illinois will encourage police agencies, such as Tri-DENT, to refrain from automatically putting users in criminal court, instead “deflecting” such persons into treatment programs and facilities.
The law is called the Community-Law Enforcement Partnership for Deflection and Substance Abuse Disorder Treatment Act. The act gives funds to police agencies to develop deflection programs.
“There is a benefit to get addicts into treatment and out of the criminal justice system. It will be difficult for participants, but the end result will be well worth it. We hope people are willing to better themselves through the resources we’ll offer,” Donnelly has said.
The resuscitative drug Narcan also continues to pull overdose victims back from the brink, but nonetheless, opioids still cause deaths on a battlefield scale.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported almost as many Americans die each year in the United States from opioids, than died during the entire Vietnam War.