My Approach to the Opioid Epidemic: Supply Support, Demand Solutions

May 30, 2016 1:56 am Published by Leave your thoughts


Lake County State’s Attorney, Michael G. Nerheim
Law Enforcement Advisor to Live4Lali

I have practiced law as an Assistant State’s Attorney and criminal defense attorney, and I now serve as the Lake County State’s Attorney. I have witnessed the opioid epidemic grow steadily in Lake County from different perspectives over the course of the past 15 plus years. As a prosecutor assigned to the drug division I began to see a shift in the types of cases we were seeing. Heroin seemed to come from out of nowhere and grow steadily.

As a criminal defense attorney, I noticed that more and more of my clients were struggling with addiction to heroin and other opiates, and this type of addiction seemed to be different. It seemed to take hold of people and destroy lives quicker than anything I had seen before. Although my role as a criminal defense attorney was to defend people charged with crimes, I would do my best to facilitate treatment for my clients. In spite of my efforts, I would lose a few clients a year to overdose.

This epidemic affects me as a member for the Lake County community, a parent, and now as a law enforcement leader. When I took over the State’s Attorney’s Office, I knew I had an opportunity to really make an impact. My personal philosophy on the correct law enforcement response to our drug problem is to attack the issue from both the “supply” and “demand” perspective. For too long, law enforcement has been concerned, if not exclusively, predominantly with the “supply” side of that equation. While it is critical that we work to disrupt the supply of illegal drugs and aggressively prosecute those criminal organizations that profit by supplying poison in our communities, this approach alone will not solve the problem.

If we want to make a difference, law enforcement has to be equally concerned with addressing demand. By working on education, prevention, treatment and harm reduction, we can help reduce demand. Not only is this the right thing to do from a humanistic perspective, it is also a much more effective way to combat the epidemic we all face. This has to be done collaboratively by bringing together stakeholders from both the government and private sector.

One of the first things I did after taking office was work with Live4Lali to co-form the Lake County Opioid Initiative (“LCOI”). This Initiative is made up of a diverse group of leaders from many different sectors that come together to work on solutions to this issue. By coming together as a community we can and will make a difference. Indeed, one of the first projects of the LCOI was to train and equip Lake County’s law enforcement first-responders with Naloxone, the life-saving antidote to an opioid overdose. At the time, Lake County was one of a small number of communities nationwide that had the courage and foresight to take such an approach. To date, 87 people have been revived by law enforcement officers throughout Lake County. We have held educational forums all over the county, promoted positive legislative change, continued to promote prevention and treatment, and just launched A Way Out, a cutting-edge program that provides a pathway into treatment for anybody that wants help. Lake County Opioid Initiative has become a national model addressing this epidemic.

I am proud of our success, but we have a long way to go. We must continue our efforts to educate our youth, spread awareness to our entire community, end stigma, provide access to quality treatment, and work to achieve our goal of zero overdose deaths. The bottom line is the people that struggle with addiction are good people that need our help. These people are our friends, neighbors, and loved-ones. There is not a community in Lake County that isn’t effected and it is the responsibility of all of us to come together to address this epidemic.

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