Cocaine comeback in Chicago area vexes law enforcement, tainted supply drives up overdose deaths

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Maggie Green WLS logo
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
Cocaine comeback vexes law enforcement, tainted supply drives up ODs
Cocaine is once again the drug of choice in Chicago and many suburbs, and supply tainted with fentanyl is making it deadlier than ever.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Forty years after the drug boom of "Miami Vice," cocaine is making a comeback in the Chicago area. Now the drug of choice, it is vexing law enforcement and crushing the loved ones of drug users who may not know what they are taking until it's too late.

Statistics and stories from families and front line experts reveal the troubling surge in cocaine across the Chicago area. Especially since the pandemic, local demand and cartel production is now reported at record levels.

And it's deadlier than ever, as most cocaine is now laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl.

Patty Stovall knows the devastation all too well. It took her 33-year-old daughter Sarah's life.

"The grief of losing a child is horrifying," she said, "I don't want to say it wasn't a surprise, like it was. It was a shock, of course."

She said despite wrestling for years with addiction, her daughter didn't have a death wish. But 18 months ago she was poisoned by cocaine she didn't know contained a large amount of fentanyl.

"She was just giving and loving from the soul," said Stovall, "We fought for her life, you know."

The United Nations on Drugs and Crime recently released the first-ever Global Report on Cocaine, noting that the global supply has reached record levels and now many regions are showing a steady rise in cocaine users.

"The UN Office on Drugs and Crime notes that cocaine trafficking is also diversifying with new hubs, routes, groups and modalities," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the Secretary-General, United Nations.

Just last week, nine men were arrested by the Chicago FBI agents after a major six year undercover investigation. Authorities said they found dozens of guns hidden in cars, some automatic, which were ready to wage a gang war, and stockpiles of fentanyl-laced cocaine.

Will County Coroner Laurie Summers is fed up with the needless deaths from fentanyl and now fentanyl-laced cocaine.

"They're buying the cocaine thinking it's safe, and it's not. And even if cocaine is part of the cause of death the majority of the time there's fentanyl. There's other drugs mixed in there," she said.

Public health data released by Will County on social media shows that in 2022 the county recorded 64 cocaine-related deaths. So far in 2023, there are at least 11.

"It's a mess. Do I have ideas? Heck yeah. Am I opinionated? Heck yeah. But we need to do better. We need to do better. And we need to get to the bottom of why it is all getting worse. And the majority of it is because there are underlying mental health issues which we are not dealing with," said Summers.

At the DuPage County morgue there were more than 150 overdose deaths in 2022, and the bodies examined there revealed an increase in non-opioid drugs, especially cocaine.

In many cases, complicated toxicology reports show a deadly cocktail of substances, making it difficult to pinpoint which drug is responsible for the death. Dr. Richard Jorgensen, who has been the DuPage County coroner for nearly a decade, has been stunned with the rise of cocaine cases now showing up in his county.

"Very commonly cocaine, which had not disappeared but become a very minor drug in Chicagoland, and now we find it in a full third of toxicology reports we see," he said.

In Cook County, an I-Team data analysis revealed a steady increase in cocaine as the primary cause of death since 2015. So far in 2023, more than 160 people have been lost to cocaine-related deaths, and last year nearly 80% of cocaine-related deaths also involved fentanyl.

On Chicago's West Side, near one of the current overdose hotspots, members of the West Side Heroin/Opioid Task Force joined other outreach groups in the community to offer drug treatment, support, care packages with opioid overdose antidote naloxone, and warnings about the deadly drug mixtures on the street.

Luther Syas, the task force's director of outreach, explained the group is in the process of changing its name because there is so much less heroin on the streets these days.

"A lot more fentanyl but we're beginning to see...a cocaine mix. It's a compound so yes people will tell you I do heroin/cocaine," he said.

Syas said there's a growing need for more health professionals trained to engage with people struggling with drug addiction, including more onsite mental health services.

In Lake County, Indiana, so far in 2023 there have been 24 cocaine associated deaths, already considered a high number by the coroner's office, which reported a dramatic increase in cocaine/fentanyl-related deaths in recent years.

Stovall's mission is to support the Indiana's efforts to bring vending machines that dispense free naloxone to communities. The effort is supported by Gov. Eric Holcomb and the machines are purchased by Overdose Lifeline, an Indiana nonprofit that used federal grant funds for the devices. Each machine holds up to 300 naloxone kits dispensed free of charge. There are now 19 machines throughout the state, including in Stovall's hometown of Griffith.

Stovall also started the nonprofit Sounds of Sarah in her daughter's memory, and heads up the We Fight Together Overdose & Drug Poisoning Awareness Walk Run on Saturday, May 13 from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. in Highland, Ind.

"I just want to be sure that people know that they're not alone. The grief of this is really tough. I want to make sure we are educating people," she said.

Each day about 300 people die from drug poisonings; as Stovall put it, like a plane crashing every day.