(CBS) — Cheaper than cigarettes and more accessible than alcohol, heroin is killing people across the country and here in Illinois.

Last year alone, there were more than 800 overdose deaths in Illinois. Since 2012, heroin has taken a life every three days in Chicago’s suburbs.

“This is an epidemic,” says Lake County, Ill. State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, who has made the issue his top priority since taking office in 2012.

“It really affects so much of what we do. We are in Lake County, and in the Chicagoland area, really in the epicenter of this epidemic that’s affecting the whole country,” he says.

Nationwide, the number of individuals who have reported using heroin in the past year nearly doubled between 2007 and 2013, spiking to 681,000 from 314,000.

“It’s very prevalent, it’s everywhere, it’s all over Lake County, it’s all over the suburbs. It’s all over the country. Every year, it seems more and more people are getting involved in heroin,” Nerheim says.

So why the recent popularity?

“It’s easy to get, it’s cheap and it’s purer now than ever before,” the prosecutor says.

Heroin is an opiate, a powerful addiction and not your back alley drug anymore.

“It doesn’t have the taboo with young people, in particular, and the drug doesn’t discriminate. Kids who are dying, these are kids from good families, get good grades from good communities,” Nerheim says.

The office of the Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim. (Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

The office of the Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim. (Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

Most the Heroin comes from the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, from Mexico to Chicago.

“They use the distribution network that is in this area. We have shipping, rail, all the major transportation. This is the hub. It makes it very easy to transport heroin around the country from our area.”

Mundelein Director of Public Safety Eric Guenther says authorities have seen cases explode in recent years and most people are unaware of the problem.

“There’s still a vast majority that don’t have any idea about what this is, where it comes from. Not my kid, right? It’s not going to happen to me. It’s everywhere,” he says.

Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim, left, and Mundelein Public Safety Director Eric Guenther. (Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, left, and Mundelein Public Safety Director Eric Guenther. (Lisa Fielding/WBBM)

Guenther says he and his patrolmen are on the front lines and see many drug users at their worst. Some repeat calls are to the same house.

“We are there when they’re not breathing, we see the family members. They look helpless. Many are in denial. What’s scary about heroin is that you never know what you’re going to get,” Guenther says.

And users are getting younger and younger. That’s why Nerheim says education is key.

“This isn’t something you wait until high school to talk to kids about. You need to start talking about this in grade school,” he says. “More education, more prevention, more outreach, more discussion — less people dying.”

Heroin users frequently say their drug addiction started with taking a friend or relative’s prescription drugs. In fact, nearly one-third of people aged 12 and over who have used drugs for the first time in 2009 began by using a prescription drug recreationally.

The problem is plaguing not only Chicago and the suburbs, but also rural areas where the drug is gaining a stronger foothold. Some predict it could get worse before it gets better.

“Right now, we really have to focus on saving lives. That’s how bad this is,” Nerheim says.

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