The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman of a possible heroin overdose on Sunday is shining a spotlight on an epidemic of opiate addiction that has soared over the past decade.
Hoffman, 46, was found on the bathroom floor of his New York City apartment with a syringe in his left arm and glassine bags usually associated with heroin. Police say they are investigating substances found in the apartment to determine which drugs were present, but Hoffman has been open about his drug use, which included prescription pills and heroin, and his decades-long struggle to stay sober.
Hoffman's death follows the death of singer and actor Cory Monteith, 31, from a toxic mixture of heroin and alcohol. Monteith, known for his role as Finn Hudson on the popular TV show Glee, died July 13 after spending time in drug rehab.
While heroin use is still low compared to marijuana, law enforcement officials and drug treatment experts say heroin has made a comeback after a decade-long outbreak of narcotic painkiller abuse. The prescription pain pills, such as OxyContin, are opioids that produce a potent high similar to heroin if abused.
"We're seeing a resurgence of heroin," says Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "It cuts across all demographic groups. We used to think of a heroin as an inner city problem, but it's now a problem we're seeing across the nation among all populations and all ages."
As authorities crack down on clinics that prescribe pain pills by the thousands and pharmaceutical companies change their formulas so the pills are more difficult to abuse, opiate addicts are turning to cheaper and more-plentiful heroin. An 80 mg OxyContin pill can sell for up to $100, while a five-dose-a-day heroin habit costs less than $60, according to federal law enforcement officials.
In recent years, the number of people abusing prescription pain pills has dropped steadily as heroin use increased. The number of people 12 and older who regularly abuse OxyContin dropped from 566,000 in 2010 to 358,000 in 2012, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported in December. The number of regular heroin users soared from 239,000 in 2010 to 335,000 in 2012, the survey found.
In New York, where Hoffman lived, heroin is readily available.
Last month, Drug Enforcement Administration agents shut down what they described as a "high-volume" heroin mill in a Bronx apartment where they seized 33 pounds of heroin worth $8 million and hundreds of thousands of tiny glassine bags stamped with "brand names" such as "NFL," "government shutdown," "iPhone," and "Olympics 2012." DEA agents believe the mill supplied heroin dealers throughout the Northeast.
"A seizure of this size should open everyone's eyes to the magnitude of the heroin problem confronting us," said New York Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan.
Health officials in Long Island's Nassau County, a New York City suburb, warned on Friday that bags of the highly potent prescription narcotic fentanyl, marketed as heroin, had killed at least two people and may be involved in three other deaths. The glassine packets containing the drug mixed with the banned drug, metamizole, are stamped "24K" in red ink.
Investigators first believed the deaths to be typical heroin overdoses, but lab tests on evidence at the scene revealed pure fentanyl, said Chief Toxicologist Joseph Avella.
"That's a particular problem, because fentanyl is much, much stronger than heroin, up to 100 times stronger," Avella said. "These products are not coming from a pharmacy, so you really don't know what's in it."
Nationwide, law enforcement, political leaders and health officials have sounded an alarm over heroin.
In Vermont , Gov. Pete Shumlin devoted his entire annual address to the legislature last week to heroin addiction, which he said had reached crisis levels in the state.
"In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addictions threaten us," Shumlin said. "What started as an OxyContin and prescription drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis."
In Pennsylvania last week, Attorney General Kathleen Kane warned the public about bags of heroin branded as "Theraflu," "Bud Ice," and "Income Tax," that contain a deadly mix of heroin and fentanyl. The combination has been linked to 22 deaths in Western Pennsylvania.