Chicago is known for many things — world-class sports teams, deep-dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs and an infamous, storied history of organized crime. While the days of gangsters and prohibition-age bootlegging are long gone, a modern crime wave has swept the city, making Chicago a heroin hot spot.
As the heart of Midwest travel and transportation, Chicago has an extensive network of highways, trains and air traffic. One such roadway — the Eisenhower Expressway — has become one of the most prevalent areas for travel when it comes to distributing and obtaining heroin, earning it the moniker “the Heroin Highway.” Drug dealers from across the nation use the Eisenhower Expressway to transport the substance into Chicago, where it’s then distributed to local communities and throughout the Midwest.
Those most impacted by the Heroin Highway are local Chicagoans. Communities and businesses along the highway suffer from violence and crime due to the presence of active drug distribution. The last decade has also seen an alarming increase in the number of heroin-related overdoses throughout Chicago. While the situation is difficult, there has also been a hopeful trend in recent years — more people are seeking treatment for heroin addiction.
The Growth of the Heroin Highway
The vast majority of heroin entering the Chicago area is smuggled across the Mexican border and transported into the city. As with the bootleggers of long ago, the most common method of transportation is by vehicle. Heroin is hidden in trucks, buses and personal vehicles, which travel the I-290 Eisenhower Expressway into the heart of Chicago. The city then serves as both a staging point and final destination for these substances.
Stash houses and street corners just off the Heroin Highway serve as retail locations. Mexican cartels often work with local gangs that sell the illegally transported heroin and other drugs within predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods. They hide their illicit activity by attempting to blend in with legitimate, hardworking members of the community.
People struggling with heroin or opioid addiction get off the I-290 Expressway and make their way to distribution centers. Many of those who use the Heroin Highway to purchase drugs come from the Chicago suburbs and other cities throughout Illinois. The price and purity of the heroin being sold in Chicago are low. The surplus supply allows local gangs to sell high quantities of heroin frequently laced with fentanyl and other narcotics, increasing the street drug’s deadliness.
How the Heroin Highway in Chicago Affects the Community
The impact of the Heroin Highway on local communities, especially those just off the Eisenhower Expressway, is overwhelming. With Chicago serving as a hub of heroin trafficking, it’s unsurprising that the area has seen increased drug dealing, violence and addiction.
The Heroin Highway and Drug Dealing
Most of the heroin in Chicago is supplied by Mexican drug cartels. These crime organizations produce heroin and supply markets throughout the U.S., often using Chicago as their hub of operations in the Midwest. In Chicago, local gangs have formed new drug dealing factions because it is lucrative to do so. They obtain illicit substances from the cartels and sell them just off the Heroin Highway to people struggling with addiction throughout the city and the nearby suburbs.
Law enforcement continues to find new ways to battle this increase in heroin distribution, including heroin busts throughout Chicago. They have also added cameras and license plate readers along the Heroin Highway to identify vehicles transporting drugs. However, completely stopping the distribution of heroin in the community and surrounding areas continues to be a challenge.
The Heroin Highway and Violent Crime
The homes and businesses near the Eisenhower Expressway have suffered from the presence of illicit drugs in their communities due to an increase in violent crimes. Gang-related gun violence results in tragic shootings that sometimes involve innocent bystanders. Shootings on the Heroin Highway itself also pose an extreme danger to drivers caught in the crossfire. The Illinois State Police report that there have been more than 170 expressway shootings in the Chicago area since 2016.
The Heroin Highway and Addiction
The increasingly easy availability and low street cost of heroin have led to a surge of misuse in the Chicago area and beyond. People struggling with addiction use the Heroin Highway to obtain these substances and take them back to their homes.
Chicago’s startling heroin misuse trends speak to the gravity of the crisis impacting the city. Chicago’s metropolitan area ranks first in the country for heroin-related emergency department visits, treating about 25,000 people every year for heroin overdose. This number is almost double that of New York City, which has a population nearly three times the size of Chicago’s.
Complicating Chicago’s heroin crisis is the fact that many drug dealers are cutting their heroin supplies with illicit fentanyl. This dangerous opioid can be 100 times more potent than morphine. Those who buy heroin are often unaware of the wildly varying percentages of fentanyl, which puts them at high risk of a fatal overdose.
Recovery Is Possible at Gateway Foundation
While federal, state and local authorities continue to work together to shut down Chicago’s heroin highway, it’s essential for communities impacted by these substances to come together in solidarity and support. Ending the devastation of the Heroin Highway is possible — even if it takes one person at a time.
For over 50 years, Gateway Foundation has worked tirelessly to help individuals break free from the bonds of substance use disorder. We now have addiction treatment centers in communities throughout Chicago and the state of Illinois. Whether you’ve fallen prey to the Heroin Highway or you’re struggling with another form of addiction, we want to help you find hope and healing. We can also treat co-occurring conditions like trauma, depression or anxiety.
Learn more about our safe, evidence-based addiction treatments and person-centered approach to care when you contact us today.