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
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.
"Oxy is much more expensive to get than heroin," said Sarah
Pullen, a special DEA agent 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 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
Ninety-five percent of the heroin smuggled into the United
States originates in South America, much of it in Mexico, the
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
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.
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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 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, 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
(Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey in
Los Angeles; editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)
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