Those struggling with heroin and opioid use in Rock Island County now have a pathway to getting help.

On Tuesday, law enforcement officials in Rock Island County announced the official launch of the Safe Passage initiative, which will allow users to voluntarily bring in their drugs and paraphernalia to law enforcement without arrest.

Law enforcement will dispose of the items and will get participants to a treatment or detox facility.

The initiative is a collaborative effort between the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Office, Silvis, Milan, East Moline, Moline and Rock Island police departments, the Rock Island County State’s Attorney’s Office, and the Robert Young Mental Health Center.

“Everybody up here has expressed a deep commitment to our community in trying to roll this out,” Sheriff Gerry Bustos said during a news conference at the Rock Island County Justice Center. “One of the ways that we’re able to help people that need help with these opioid problems is to make sure that treatment is readily available. We know that incarceration is readily available, but we also know that that won’t fix the problem. Treatment is our best bet in being able to do that.”

The program has been in the works for more than a year in response to the heroin and opioid epidemic that has hit the Quad-Cities and the nation. 

East Moline Police Chief John Reynolds said Illinois has recorded nearly 11,000 opioid overdose deaths since 2008. Last year, there were 1,900 deaths, he said.

In Rock Island County, there have been 64 deaths since 2011. Twenty-one opioid-related deaths were recorded in 2017, Reynolds said.

Rock Island County said the first overdose death of 2018 was recorded Monday, Reynolds said.

“There’s definitely a need for this program,” he said.

Bustos said the opioid epidemic has created a strain on the county jail, especially when an inmate is going through withdrawal and becomes sick.

“They have to take them to the hospital and get them treatment, so we’re paying for hospitals stays,” he said. “Perhaps we could better utilize all the facilities here without that coming to a cost for the taxpayers."

Silvis Police Chief Mark VanKlaveren, who worked in undercover narcotics, said police are seeing prescription drugs like hydrocodone on the streets.

Sometimes, when someone loses access to those drugs, they move on to heroin, he said.

“This isn’t a poor problem, this isn’t a rich problem,” VanKlaveren said. “This hits all socio-economic levels of society.”

He added, “This is a burden on families, on our social system, on our jails, on the police.”

Police typically are seeing “brown powder heroin” that comes from “the southern border” and China, VanKlaveren said.

The scariest trend that the department has seen is that people are using fentanyl and carfentanil synthetic opioids that are more potent than heroin, he said.

State’s Attorney John McGehee stressed the importance of proactive, community-based, problem-solving approach to the opioid epidemic.

“We can no longer use solely traditional methods of drug enforcement,” he said. “We must search for other preventable tools for drug abuse.”

On the treatment side, the county is partnering with Robert Young, Rosecrance Adult and Rosecrance Child & Teen in Rockford, Illinois; Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington, Illinois; and Gateway Foundation Centers in the Chicago area.

Participants in the Safe Passage program can go into any police station of the sheriff’s office — including its substations in Carbon Cliff and Andalusia — and turn in their drugs and paraphernalia.

They will immediately be screened by a treatment liaison coordinator, who will also contact participating inpatient facilities to determine proper placement.

They then will link up with a “safe passage guide,” who will get them to the facility.

Twelve volunteers from Edgewood Baptist Church in Rock Island have stepped up to make that happen, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

If bed space is not available at a facility, participants will be given a list of local outpatient services, Janice McBride, a sergeant with the sheriff’s office and a treatment liaison coordinator for the program, said.

There are no consequences if participants change their minds and decide not to seek treatment, officials said. 

Funding to help offset costs, such as for gas and food, will come through fine money that goes to the county for drug treatment purposes through changes in the Cannabis Control Act and the Drug Paraphernalia Act, Bustos said.

Rock Island's Safe Passage program is similar to a program launched in Lee County, Illinois, in 2015.