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‘There was nothing I could do’: Mom of son who overdosed on tainted heroin

This baggie was left near a side walk in East Garfield Park, where a string of heroin overdoses has killed four people. | David Struett/Sun-Times

One person has been charged and another is still being questioned about a batch of tainted heroin on the West Side that killed four people and hospitalized at least a dozen others earlier this week.

Reports of multiple overdoses started about 9:40 a.m. Tuesday, and by late afternoon, at least 17 people were taken to hospitals, according to Chicago police. Callers also reported a silver-colored SUV selling drugs in the area of Chicago and Homan avenues.

Chicago police and the Drug Enforcement Agency worked “around the clock” to investigate the overdoses, police said.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said state-level charges have been approved against one person, but federal charges may still be pending. He declined to release information about the charges while the federal investigation is ongoing.

A DEA spokesperson declined to release information about any possible charges.

The heroin used in the overdoses contained fentanyl and other substances, the DEA said.

One woman found her son, Anthony Shanks, lying on the floor from an apparent overdose Tuesday in East Garfield Park.

“My grandkids had a fit yesterday,” the woman said. “They came and saw him laying on the floor.”

She heard him grab something from the fridge, sit down and clap three times. She entered the room and found him unconscious, slumped backward in front of a sofa in his underwear.

Shanks was one of the four dead from the apparent drug overdoses of the laced heroin.

“You tell him constantly … to what effect?” Shank’s mom asked. “He was 50 years old and there was nothing I could do about it.”

Another fatal overdose happened two blocks away from their home.

Fentanyl is a painkiller 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. When mixed together, its responsible for community-side overdoses. In 2015, at least 74 users of tainted heroin on the West Side were sent to hospitals within 72 hours.

Opioid deaths continue to climb, according to the DEA. In 2018, about 200 people died per day from overdoses. The agency said that heroin and fentanyl remained the biggest drug threat to the U.S.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, whose district covers part of the West Side, said overdose deaths are preventable if people have the right training and resources.

“We have to rescue these communities and cut off those drugs,” Ford said. “It’s not just heroin — it’s the heroin laced with fentanyl. It’s potent and it kills people.”

One problem, Ford said, is when word gets out that someone is selling the strong, tainted heroin, people run to it. “It’s amazing. People should be saying they have deadly heroin, not potent heroin.”

Ford believes the overdose-antidote Narcan is a necessity for family members of people dependent on opioids.

“There will be overdoses in these communities and it will not stop,” Ford said. “What we do know is we have to get Narcan out on the street and lead people to treatment.

One Chicago non-profit distributes Narcan from vans directly to drug users.

“We’ve been distributing Narcan to people doing the drugs because they are the true first responders,” Chicago Recovery Alliance Executive Director Greg Scott said. The group delivered over 80,000 doses in 2018 and expects to top 120,000 this year.

There’s a false idea that people can suddenly quit drugs they are dependent on, Scott said.

“In the meantime, there are harm-reduction means: make sure you’re not using alone; make sure family members know where the naloxone is,” Scott said. “This doesn’t get talked about in our culture because we have a demand for abstinence.”

Treatment is also available to drug users, such as methadone, Vivitrol, Saboxone, according to Ford, and they are covered by Medicaid.

“We need to make sure they know there’s help out there,” he said. They have to know we support and love them no matter what.”