Hoffman Death Puts Focus on Heroin's Comeback
    2014-02-05 21:33:08     Reuters TV       Web Editor: Jiang

The apparent heroin overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman comes amid a sharp rise in trafficking of the illegal narcotic across the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years and growing abuse of the drug nationwide, federal officials said.

"Well, certainly, the loss of somebody famous and especially to a drug like heroin, really brings a lot of attention to it, but we really have been tracking this resurgence or this upsurge now for quite a while. And, we are seeing it, and we are seeing it across every demographic too. It's a very different heroin problem than something we had experienced in the past," said R. Gil Kerlikowske, United States Director of National Drug Control Policy.

The increasing levels of U.S. heroin use, which has reached epidemic proportions during the past five years, stems from a corresponding spike in abuse of prescription opiate-based painkillers, such as oxycodone, Drug Enforcement Administration officials said.

"Overall usage, we believe is up. It has been fueled by the abuse of prescription medications, oxycontin, roxycontin, vicodin, which originally was given for legitimate reasons, pain, pain management by doctors, but unfortunately some people have become addicted to it," James Hunt, Acting Special Agent in Charge for the New York Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said.

"It's been diverted to other people who just want to use it to get high and unfortunately they become addicted to all these opiates, and when they can't it get anymore, they go to the street and heroin is plentiful and it is cheap and potent on the street," he told Reuters Television.

Many individuals who start out abusing oxycodone turn eventually to heroin as they build up a tolerance to the pain pills and find that they can buy heroin far more cheaply than prescription medications on the black market, the officials said.

The amount of heroin seized annually along America's Southwestern border has increased nearly four-fold between 2008 and 2012, from 558.8 kg (1,232 lb) to 2,091 kg (4,610 lb) per year, a sign that smuggling operations are on the rise, the DEA said.

Ninety-five percent of the heroin smuggled into the United States originates in South America, and Mexico, the agency said.

Meanwhile, fatal heroin overdoses have increased 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, with 3,038 such deaths reported that year, and numbers are believed to still be on the rise, the agency said.

Possible reasons cited for the rise in heroin deaths include a general increase in abuse of the drug, an increase in the availability of high-purity heroin at the street level, and a growing number of people using the narcotic at a younger age.

Authorities in the Northeast said they have seen a rash of fatal overdoses in recent months attributed to a deadly brand of heroin laced with fentanyl, an opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Law enforcement sources told Reuters investigators were trying to determine whether the heroin that is suspected of killing Hoffman, 46, might have been laced with fentanyl.

The Oscar-winning actor, who had a history of substance abuse, was found dead in the bathroom of his Manhattan apartment on Sunday (February 2), with a syringe stuck in his arm. New York City police sources familiar with the case said 50 small bags of what appeared to be heroin were found in his home.

An autopsy of the actor's body was performed on Monday (February 4), but it was not known when results would be released.

Dr. Marvin Seppala, the chief medical officer at the Hazelden drug addiction treatment centers, said heroin and other opioids lend themselves to overdose and death because they directly act on the parts of the brain that control breathing.

Erin Mulvey, a DEA special agent in New York City, said additives such fentanyl are added to heroin at local distribution centers where pure heroin smuggled into the United States is processed and packaged for street sales.

She said 17 percent of all heroin seized by authorities in recent years has been confiscated in New York, a sign that the city is a major U.S. distribution hub for the drug.

The DEA had no nationwide data quantifying the incidence of overall heroin use independent of overdose deaths.

But the Los Angeles Times cited figures from a neuropharmacology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who said the percentage of addicts seeking treatment for heroin abuse at 150 drug treatment centers across the country has increased from about 10 percent in 2011-2012 to between 20 and 25 percent over the past year.

The White House's top drug policy maker said more education was needed as to the dangers of addiction.

"There are literally thousands of people that overdose and people that succumb to the fatality of an overdose, that are not famous, that are not well-known. And, so when something like this happens with an Oscar award winning actor, it does give people an opportunity to one realize that this isn't just an inner-city problem and number two that we should be doing a better job of getting the message out and I think that's the opportunity that we have right now as a result of this tragedy," Kerlikowske said.

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