Law enforcement officials from La Salle, Lake and Lee counties spoke about how to end the stigma of addiction at a community education meeting Wednesday in La Salle.
Hosted by The Perfectly Flawed Foundation and its creator Luke Tomsha, the seminar's speakers discussed positive steps being taken in North Central Illinois communities.
With his voice cracking, Tomsha, a former drug abuser, told an audience of police and public health stakeholders about how La Salle County has been greatly impacted by the current opioid crisis and ranks fifth highest for drug overdoses within the state.
The audience was moved to applause by the story of Danya Vasquez, of Waukegan, who recounted her struggles with drug addiction. The 26-year-old mother credited community recovery programs for leading her to sobriety following a decade of drug abuse.
"When I was using, police were to be feared," she said. "However, it was the compassion from law enforcement officers which pointed me on the path of recovery."
Vasquez said addiction is a chronic brain disease.
"It is no different from other illnesses. We must (search out) and find innovative solutions to the problem."
La Salle County Jail Superintendent Jason Edgcomb and State's Attorney Karen Donnelly also addressed the growing problem.
Donnelly used the occasion to announce state of Illinois officials will meet with her Thursday to review the certification application for creation of the county's long-planned drug court.
"Forty-nine percent of all crimes in La Salle County are related to drugs," Donnelly said.
Like Vasquez, Donnelly labeled addiction as a disease.
"There is a benefit to get addicts into treatment and out of the criminal justice system," Donnelly said.
Dawn Connerton, of Community Partners Against Substance Abuse in Princeton, said it is important to get youths involved and educated to the dangers of drugs. She said CPASA, a community organization with over 140 active members from Bureau and Putnam counties, has a mission to reduce substance abuse.
Connerton said it's important to direct drug users to available treatment resources and continue to promote awareness of the issue.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim said there is "not a community in my county which has not been impacted by the opioid crisis."
He said drug addiction is not limited to demographics such as income or nationality.
"We must create and support community initiatives that move beyond just talk."
Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther spoke of a program he helped originate, Way Out, that is designed to reduce the number of addicts and subsequently reduce crime by offering substance abusers the chance to get into treatment programs.
Guenther said since the Way Out program started in his county two years ago, "already 450 addicts have utilized the voluntary deflection program." He said he has found two-thirds of crime in his area is committed by those under the influence of illegal narcotics.
Dixon Police Detective Jeffrey Ragan, who lost a nephew to drug abuse, told the audience of about 80 people that "arresting abusers is not the way" to combat addiction. Ragan said he was active in the city's Safe Passage program, which finds community members to volunteer for driving substance abusers to recovery centers.
"We must combat the problem with treatment rather criminal prosecution," he said.