The apparent heroin overdose death of US actor Philip Seymour Hoffman comes amid a sharp rise in trafficking of the illegal narcotic across the US-Mexico border and growing abuse of the drug across the world’s No. 1 economy, US officials said on Monday.
The increasing levels of US heroin use, which has reached epidemic proportions over the past five years, stems from a corresponding spike in the abuse of prescription opiate-based painkillers, such as oxycodone, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials said.
Many individuals who start out abusing oxycodone eventually turn to heroin as they build up a tolerance to the pills and find that they can buy heroin far more cheaply than prescription medications on the black market, the officials said.
“Oxy is much more expensive to get than heroin,” special DEA agent Sarah Pullen said in Los Angeles. “Prescription drug abuse really took hold about 10 years ago and about five years ago, we really started to see heroin abuse pick up.”
The amount of heroin seized annually along the US’ southwestern border has increased nearly four-fold between 2008 and 2012, from 558.8kg to 2,091kg per year, in a sign that smuggling is on the rise, the antidrug agency said.
Ninety-five percent of the heroin smuggled into the US originated in South America, much of it from Mexico, the agency said.
Meanwhile, fatal heroin overdoses have increased 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, 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 street level and a growing number of people using the narcotic at a younger age.
Authorities in the northeastern US said they have seen a rash of fatal overdoses in recent months attributed to a deadly batch of heroin laced with fentanyl, an opioid that is between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine and between 30 and 50 times more powerful than heroin.
Law enforcement sources told reporters that investigators were trying to determine if the heroin 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 with a syringe 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 Hoffman’s body was performed on Monday, but it is not known when the results are to be released.
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, said that additives such fentanyl are added to heroin at local distribution centers where smuggled pure heroin 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 US distribution hub for the drug.
The Los Angeles Times cited figures from a neuropharmacology professor at Washington University in St Louis showing that the percentage of addicts seeking treatment for heroin abuse at 150 treatment centers across the US increased from about 10 percent in 2011 and 2012, to between 20 and 25 percent over the past year.