Report  |  Law enforcement

Drug trends and distribution in Illinois: A survey of drug task forces

 |   | 

Drug trafficking is the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of drugs. 1 Drug distribution networks exist to oversee operations to obtain, transport, deliver, and finally sell to individuals in communities all over the United States. 2 Globally, money exchanged through the illicit drug trade is around $500 billion per year. 3 Despite great risk, individuals in the in illegal drug trade are drawn to the potentially lucrative enterprise. However, the economic cost to U.S. society for drug distribution including criminal activity, as well as users’ medical costs and lost productivity, was estimated at $76 billion per year.4

In Illinois, the distribution of controlled substances is a significant problem. In 1995, the Office of the National Drug Control Policy established the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in Chicago.5 Chicago HIDTA’s mission is to enhance and coordinate drug control efforts among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in order to eliminate or reduce drug trafficking in critical regions in Illinois. In addition to establishing programs like HIDTA, drug task forces were created to combat the distribution of controlled substances at the local level. Drug task forces arrest and prosecute drug offenders, identify and respond to emerging drug problems, and enhance inter-agency cooperation. 6 The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority has supported drug task forces with federal funding for more than 20 years.

Enlisting the participation of the 19 drug task force directors, this study sought to understand the extent of the drug problem in the jurisdictions covered by each drug task force. To do so, Authority researchers analyzed data from a survey administered to the 19 Authority-funded drug task forces on types of drugs frequency, trends, use, and distribution.

Most problematic and emerging drugs

Drug task force officials encountered cannabis (n=19), heroin (n=18), prescription drugs (n=16), cocaine (n=15), and crack cocaine (n=14) in their jurisdictions. These drugs were identified as the most problematic in terms of illegal use and distribution.

Use and distribution of heroin was identified as the most serious problem drug by 16 of 19 drug task force communities, and most drug task force officials indicated an increase in the heroin problem in their communities over the two years examined (n=17) (see figure).

Note: No drug task forces responded not a problem at all

Although less frequently noted, many drug task forces also indicated they had seen an increased drug problem associated with cannabis (n=12), prescription drugs (12), and methamphetamines (n=12) in their communities over the past two years (2014-2015). Other emerging drugs identified were cannabis oils and cannabis wax (n=4) and synthetic cathinones (n=2).

These findings were also consistent with the Authority’s 2016 Illinois Drug Threat Assessment. Thirty-seven out of 77 police chiefs and sheriffs identified heroin as the greatest drug threat followed by prescription drugs (n=24). However, in the central and southern regions of Illinois, methamphetamine was most commonly identified as a considerable drug threat. Cannabis was fairly evenly spread out among the rankings for greatest drug threat across each region.7 The National Drug Threat Assessment also corroborates these findings, with an identified increase in heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and controlled prescription drugs.

Implications for policy and practice

Collaborate to combat the spread of heroin

Drug task forces in Illinois reported a growing concern about the spread of heroin use and the larger geographical distribution network for heroin compared to other drugs. Their perceptions that the heroin problem has grown and spread are supported by other data.8 Multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency law enforcement efforts are necessary to combat the heroin problem in Illinois. Illinois law enforcement and drug task force members should collaborate among themselves, as well as with agencies in neighboring states, to learn the distribution patterns than channel heroin to Illinois communities. Several local law enforcement task forces have been formed to examine and combat heroin, but existing multi-jurisdictional drug task forces are in a position to work together on this issue.

Train law enforcement officers to prevent heroin overdoses

Several respondents explained that their drug task force noticed that heroin overdoses appeared to be increasing in their communities. Anecdotal reports are strengthened by data, which shows that the number of deaths due to heroin overdose in Illinois is increasing.9 Such findings are consistent with recent trends in the United States, which according to previous studies, is experiencing an opioid overdose epidemic.10 In 2014, Illinois passed the Heroin Crisis Act [20 ILCS 301/5-23], requiring first responders like law enforcement agents to carry Narcan (generic name Naloxone), a medicine used to prevent overdoses of heroin or other opioids from becoming fatal. However, a survey of local law enforcement agents across the country showed that only 4 percent reported carrying Narcan.11 Patrol officers should be trained to use Naloxone and should be required by their task forces to carry it.

Enhance community outreach

Community outreach efforts and successfully working in coordination with both criminal justice and non-criminal agencies on drug enforcement and drug cases is one strategy to addressing drug availability and use at the local level. Drug task force officers use community outreach to inform the public about drug abuse, heroin, opioids, and other drugs. Task forces can share information about Illinois’ Emergency Medical Services Access Act (or the “Good Samaritan Law”) [PA 097-0678]. The Act encourages people to get emergency medical assistance and provides protection from prosecution for persons making a call for help. One study recommended that law enforcement “alleviate the concerns of the individuals that fear being arrested at an overdose.” 12


  1. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2016). Drug trafficking. Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/drug-trafficking/
  2. Johnson, B. D. (2003). Patterns of drug distribution: Implications and issues. Substance Use & Misuse, 38(11-13), 1789-1806.
  3. United Nations Drug Control Program. (1998). Economic and social consequences of drug abuse and trafficking. Vienna, Austria: Author.
  4. Parsons, C., & A. Kamenca, A. (1992). Economic impact of drug abuse in America. Los Angeles, CA: University of Southern California.; United Nations Drug Control Program. (1998). Economic and social consequences of drug abuse and trafficking. Vienna, Austria: Author.
  5. Chicago High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. (n.d.). Mission of the HIDTA program. Retrieved from http://www.chicago-hidta.org/default.htm
  6. Applied Research Services, Inc. (2014). Georgia multi-jurisdictional task force process and outcome evaluation 2014. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.; Hollist, D., Acton, D., Harris, C., Bunch, J., McKay, P., Burfeind, J., & Doyle, D. (2014). An examination of economic analyses approaches for Montana’s seven multi-jurisdictional drug task forces. Missoula, MT: University of Montana-Missoula.
  7. Gleicher, L. (in press). Illinois drug threat assessment. Chicago, IL: Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
  8. Kane-Willis, K. (2015). Diminishing capacity: The heroin crisis and Illinois treatment in national perspective. Chicago, IL: Roosevelt University, Institute for Metropolitan Affairs, Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.; Kane-Willis, K., & Schmitz, S. J. (2012). Heroin use: National and Illinois perspectives, 2008 to 2010. Chicago, IL: Roosevelt University, Institute for Metropolitan Affairs, Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.; National Drug Intelligence Center. (2001). Illinois Drug Threat Assessment. Johnstown, PA: U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center.
  9. Kane-Willis, K., & Schmitz, S. J. (2012). Heroin use: National and Illinois perspectives, 2008 to 2010. Chicago, IL: Roosevelt University, Institute for Metropolitan Affairs, Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.
  10. Paulozzi, L., Baldwin, G., Franklin, G., Kerlikowske, G., Jones, C.M., Shiya, N., & Paopvic, T. (2012). CDC grand rounds: prescription drug overdoses—a U.S. epidemic. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 61(1), 10-13.; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2012). Results from the 2011 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Rockville, MD: Author.
  11. Police Executive Research Forum. (2014). New challenges for police: A heroin epidemic and changing attitudes toward marijuana. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum.
  12. Follet, K.M., Piscitelli, A., Parikinson, M., & Munger, F. (2014). Barriers to calling 9-1-1 during overdose emergencies in a Canadian context. Critical Social Work, 15(1), 15-28.

Jessica Reichert

Jessica Reichert manages ICJIA’s Center for Justice Research and Evaluation. Her research focus includes violence prevention, corrections and reentry, women inmates, and human trafficking. Her work received the Justice Research and Statistics Association’s Phillip Hoke award in 2011 for outstanding effort in applying empirical analysis to criminal justice policymaking. She has conducted numerous national and state presentations on criminal and juvenile justice issues. Prior to joining ICJIA, Jessica worked at the Office of the Illinois Attorney General and in 2005 received the Distinguished Service Award for her work on behalf of citizens of Illinois. She earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bradley University and master’s degree in criminal justice from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jessica is also a part-time Adjunct Instructor at Loyola University Chicago.

Drug Trends and Distribution in Illinois: A Survey of Drug Task Forces