Chicago, Illinois

Drug Abuse Patterns and Trends in Chicago, Illinois: June 2013

Lawrence J. Ouellet, Ph.D.

Summary of Key Findings for the 2012 Reporting Period:

  • Heroin, cocaine, and marijuana continued to be the most commonly used illicit substances in Chicago during this reporting period, accounting for 90 percent of the reports from drug items seized by law enforcement and analyzed in National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS) laboratories.
  • Continuing prominence of heroin in most indicators.


Heroin continued to be the major opiate abused in the Chicago region, and many heroin-use indicators were increasing or maintain­ing levels that had been elevated since the mid-1990s. Heroin ranked first in reasons for entering publicly funded drug treatment among Chicago residents in FY2012, second in the number of seizures by police in 2012, and essentially was tied for first with alcohol in the rate of DAWN ED heroin-involved visits in 2011. Heroin purity increased from 2006 to 2009, then declined in 2011 and 2012, although it remained within the typical range for the past decade. Heroin purity at the street level and the price per milligram pure in 2011 were within the typical range for the past decade, at 13.6 percent and $0.58, respectively. The Illinois Poison Center reported an increase in calls during the summer of 2012 regarding potent heroin that required high levels of naloxone to reverse when overdoses occurred. New heroin users typically are young, White suburban residents. The increase in heroin indicators, including deaths from overdose, in the suburban counties around Chicago (specifically, DuPage, Will, and McHenry Counties) is the most important finding for the Chicago area for this reporting period.


Cocaine indicators suggested a continuing decline. Cocaine fell to third in the number of drug reports among items seized and analyzed NFLIS, behind marijuana and heroin. Cocaine also fell to third among reasons for entering publicly funded treatment programs in fiscal year (FY) 2009 and then fell to fourth in FY 2012. Emergency department (ED) rates for cocaine in the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) database declined significantly between 2004 and 2011. Among detainees at the Cook County Jail who participated in the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program (ADAM) II urinalyses and self-reports indicated declines in cocaine use.

Prescription Opioids

Hydrocodone (compared with oxycodone) continued to be the most available prescription opioid to non-prescribed users. While these drugs were reported far less often than heroin in the DAWN ED database, weighted rates significantly increased between 2004 and 2011 for hydrocodone (106 percent) and oxycodone (81 percent). In the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), these drugs were the third most mentioned by 9th–12th grade students, after marijuana and inhalants.


Some indicators suggested continuing increases in benzodiazepine use.


Methamphetamine indicators suggested little use in Chicago; the drug was most often found in downstate and western Illinois.


Marijuana use (ever) among 9th–12th grade students in Chicago remained approximately level. The Drug Enforcement Administration and Chicago Police Department reported increases in supply sources for marijuana, including local grow houses. NFLIS data showed sizeable increases in seizures of cannabimimetics (synthetic marijuana).


MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) indicators suggested low but increasing use, including among 9th–12th grade students. ED rates for MDMA-involved visits were significantly higher in 2011 versus 2010 (up 71 percent) and 2004 (up 221 percent). Ethnographic reports suggested that MDMA (or drugs sold as MDMA) was popular among young, low-income African-Americans and was readily available.

Other Drugs

The 2011 YRBS indicated a continuing increase in inhalant use by students. NFLIS data showed sizeable increases in seizures of piperazines (primarily BZP [1-benzylpiperazine]), substituted cathinones (e.g., “bath salts”), and a decrease in tryptamines. PCP (phencyclidine) indicators showed low levels of use, although reports for PCP from analyzed drug items remained above the national average.

For inquiries regarding this report, contact Lawrence J. Ouellet, Ph.D., Research Professor, Community Outreach Intervention Projects, Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, MC 923, 1603 West Taylor Street, Chicago, ll 60612-4394, Phone: 312–355–0145, Fax: 312–996–1450, E-mail: