NEW YORK – The death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman underscores a surge in heroin use reminiscent of the 1970s and early ’80s.
More than 660,000 Americans used heroin in 2012, health officials say – nearly double the number from five years earlier – and users tend to be more affluent than before, living in the suburbs and rural areas rather than the inner city.
“It’s reached epidemic proportions here in the United States,” said Rusty Payne, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Mexican cartels are pushing ever-larger amounts of heroin across the Southwestern border, officials said.
Heroin has flooded the Northeast and reached a large market of American pain-pill addicts seeking a less-expensive high. Overdoses and emergency-room visits have skyrocketed across the country, officials say, and more are dying from a drug whose purity can be hard to judge.
Los Angeles traditionally was the final destination for Mexico’s trade, but in recent years that distribution has spread across the country, said Sarah Pullen, a special agent in the DEA’s Los Angeles office.
“Increasingly, heroin addicts are former prescription drug abusers,” Pullen said. “They become hooked on painkillers and move over to heroin because it is available for far cheaper.”
Heroin users in Los Angeles can get a hit for as little as $8 to $10, officials say, so they can get high several times for what they’d pay for a single, pricier pain pill.
The consequences have been increasingly lethal. In 2010 – the latest year such data were available – heroin overdoses killed more than 3,000 people across the U.S., a 45 percent increase since 2006, according to the DEA.
Hoffman’s death at age 46 comes just a week after Pennsylvania officials announced that a batch of heroin spiked with fentanyl had killed at least 22 people in January.
Spiked heroin also has killed at least 37 people in Maryland since September, chief medical examiner Dr. David Fowler said.
Hoffman was found dead with a needle in his arm. In his apartment were dozens of glassine packets, some containing powder, law enforcement officials said.
Heroin was a drug of choice for celebrities and inner-city addicts alike in the 1970s, often with fatal consequences. But its popularity declined in the 1980s as the HIV/AIDS crisis brought worries of infection-carrying needles. Crack cocaine supplanted heroin as a cheap, powerful option for poorer users.