Illinois’ Drug and Alcohol Problems

Illinois’ drug and alcohol problems are on the rise. The state of Illinois is probably most well-known for its largest city: Chicago, also called Chi-town, Chiraq, and The Windy City. This city is equally well-known for art and culture as it is for gang violence, booze and drug running.

Illinois’ History

The first Europeans to see Illinois were French explorers in 1673. The region has been claimed at various times by the French, British, and Americans, in that order. While Chicago is the most well-known Illinois city, Springfield is the capital of Illinois.

Illinois borders Wisconsin, Michigan, Lack Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Iowa. Its connection with lakes and rivers has made it a natural hub for import and export. There is a story of a man called Captain Schuenemann who would brave the icy waters of Lake Michigan to transport Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago. His nickname was Captain Santa and he often gave away trees to poorer folks who could not afford them. Lake Michigan commerce has historically consisted of food, coal, and machine parts, but Christmas tree shipping was big business in the early 1900’s.

The population of Illinois reflects the growth of its large cities. Numbers have swelled from about 4.8 million in 1900 to around 12.9 million in 2014. There were two dips in population: one during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and the other during World War II. The first population dip in 1918 was seen around the U.S. and the world when one of the deadliest flu’s known to man spread rapidly through densely populated urban centers.

Unemployment rates in Illinois have only rarely gone below the national average. And since 1999, Illinois has been hit hard by unemployment. As of December of 2014, the unemployment rate of Illinois was at 6.2%, about 1.5% higher than the national average.

Early Drug & Alcohol Problems in Illinois

Chicago wasn’t the only location in Illinois with bootlegging and mobster problems during Prohibition. Private farmers created “bathtub gin” for their own use and for sale while others bootlegged alcohol from across state lines or even created moonshine that they sold to local gangs.

Towns close to Chicago were often home to mobsters “lying low” from the police. Places like Beardstown would serve as residence for notorious names such as Al Capone when the heat was on in Chicago.

With gangsters came other illegal activities like gambling and protection rackets. Even after Prohibition was repealed nationally, some farmers continued to make moonshine and bootleg booze into “dry” counties. This activity has continued even up to the present.

Prohibition and Mob Activity in Chicago

Some of the most infamous mobsters in the United States lived in Chicago and thrived during Prohibition. Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Bugs” Moran, and Johnny Torrio all ran gangs in Chicago during Prohibition.

Prohibition passed in 1920 and was repealed in 1933. According to the Chicago Tribune, by 1924 there were more than 15 breweries and an estimated 20,000 saloons in business in the city. These speakeasies were able to remain open and relatively public because the mayor of Chicago in office during much of Prohibition supported the trade of illegal alcohol. In fact, his police chief once complained that “60 percent of my police are in the bootleg business.”

Beyond illegal drinking and bootlegging, gangs sprung up throughout Chicago. The most famous and most successful gangster during Prohibition was Al Capone. Capone took over a bootlegging business from Johnny Torrio, a New York native who later fled back home after an assassination attempt. When Capone took power, he began gunning down rival gangsters, taking over their territory and bootlegging operations. He allegedly murdered Dion O’Banion and Earl Weiss, rival gangsters running the North Side of Chicago. In the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Capone’s gang attempted to murder his last remaining rival, George “Bugs” Moran.

Gang violence, the Mafia, and the drug trade have continued to plague Chicago since Prohibition. While gangs like the Latin Kings and Vice Lords control much of the drug trade on Chicago streets, the Mafia also remains active in Chicago.

Chicago and Drug Abuse

According to 2013 statistics, Chicago leads the nation in terms of heroin overdose-related emergency room visits. The city has unamusingly been given the nickname “Chiraq” because of the amount of gang-related violence. The West Side of Chicago has been called an “open air drug market.” Reporters and police who have investigated these problems found that the increased heroin trade can be attributed to an organized Mexican cartel operation. One reporter for the Chicago Reader guessed that around 4,000 people are annually employed in Chicago by this cartel.

There has also been a general change in how gangs in Chicago work. Where previously there was a prevalence of local gangs working with a “corporate” structure, there are now more dispersed activities with a number of rival gangs, contributing to an increase in gang violence while making the main source of drugs into Chicago, the more organized Mexican cartels, extremely wealthy. Currently about 90% of the drugs into Chicago are cartel controlled. This power shift, coupled with high unemployment rates, has caused an increase in the drug trade throughout Chicago, which affects all of Illinois and beyond.

The Drug Trade in Illinois

Illicit drugs are a huge problem in Illinois. Alcoholism has also been an issue among Illinois residents since before Prohibition. Here are the most commonly abused drugs in Illinois, rated by most common to least:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription opioids
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin

In the list above, the statistics for heroin abuse were obtained from 2010, while the rest were obtained from 2012. According to anecdotal evidence and statistics on heroin overdoses, treatment admissions, and extreme price cuts in heroin from 2009 to the present, heroin is likely a much larger problem in Illinois than it was in 2010. In fact, there is a drug overdose prevention program active in Illinois which distributes Narcan (naloxone), a drug used to treat opiate overdose, to friends and families of heroin addicts. Police officers have also been given this drug to treat overdoses immediately.

Youth Drug Problems in Illinois

The prevalence of drugs used by Illinois youth, ranked highest to lowest:

  • Marijuana
  • Alcohol
  • Prescription drugs 
  • Inhalants
  • Ecstasy (MDMA)
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Heroin

Another risk to children in Illinois, mainly in Chicago, is gang recruitment. There are a number of gangs throughout the state, some taking shelter from Chicago police in the suburbs or in nearby Indiana, that recruit children. 40% of American gang members are children under the age of 18. The U.S. spends more on incarceration of youth than on education, rehabilitation or mentorship for children.

If we wish to create a violence-free and drug-free Illinois, these numbers need to change.

Drug & Alcohol Abuse in Today’s Illinois

According to 2013 statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and 2010 statistics from the White House, heroin addiction is the most common reason Chicago natives and Illinois residents seek drug rehabilitation. The most common reasons people in Illinois check into rehab are:

  • Heroin
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Prescription opioids
  • Stimulants 
  • Tranquilizers
  • PCP
Solutions for a Drug-Free & Prosperous Illinois

Despite how hopeless the drug scene in Chicago and Illinois may appear, there are solutions. But they require that individuals, families and groups band together in an organized fashion. Here are a few solutions for a drug-free and prosperous state:

1. Get involved in your community.

Now, more than ever, is the time to help rebuild your community from the inside. Talk to local people, help them, and learn their stories. The more you understand what people around you are struggling with, the more you can help them create a better life.

2. Promote drug education.

Talk to local schools, parents and youth and promote drug education. The more our youth are educated on the harsh realities of drugs and the drug trade, the more they will be able to make sensible decisions and steer clear of the pitfalls and traps. Here are but a few of the many useful and educational websites that can also be used to gather manpower and resources:


3. Talk to people about job training and other options.

According to news reports, many gang members that sell drugs do so because they don’t feel they have other options. However, these same people are getting paid at the same rates a manual laborer would be paid, and with some serious occupational hazards including a heavy conscience. Work with local job training programs and help others come up with practical, legal and constructive options for creating income and supporting their families.

4. Help yourself and others break free from drugs.

The first step to a drug-free city is a reduction in the demand for drugs. This starts with you. If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, get help immediately. Your life choices affect more people than you might imagine.

Changing “Chiraq” back to simply “The Windy City” will take a lot of work. Start by helping yourself and others break free from the death-grip that is drug and alcohol abuse, and help our youth through drug education and prevention initiatives. You owe it to yourself and others to live a happy, drug-free and prosperous life. Through all our efforts, we can rebuild Chicago, Illinois and the entire Midwest region.

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