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Sunday’s death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose underscores a disturbing trend in Michigan and across the U.S.
Use of the illegal drug has skyrocketed in five years, as an alternative to higher-priced prescription drugs. And heroin has gotten more lethal, as it’s mixed with dangerous additives.
“It is horrible that someone like Hoffman died, but this is commonplace,” said Lou Katranis of Oakland County, who lost his 21-year-old son, Christopher, to a heroin overdose four years ago.
“I go to a lot of meetings, I speak at treatment centers and we barely flinch, because it happens so often.” Katranis also has battled drug and alcohol addiction.
Heroin use nationally increased 79 percent from 2007-12; 669,000 people reported they used the drug, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health released in 2013.
Heroin overdose deaths went up 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There were 158 heroin-related deaths in Michigan from 2007-11, the most recent figures available, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.
The rising costs of frequently abused prescription drugs, such as Vicodin, has pushed some drug addicts to turn to heroin, which is cheaper, to get the high they crave.
Heroin, which is in abundant supply, also can be snorted, making it more appealing to users who don’t want to use syringes that could leave behind tell-tale scars.
“There’s not a community in southeast Michigan that hasn’t been hit hard with opiate use, overdoses of heroin and prescription painkillers,” said Special Agent Rich Isaacson, with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Detroit Division.
Randy O’Brien, director of Macomb County Community Mental Health’s office of substance abuse, said one pill can cost up to $80 on the street, while heroin can go for $5.
Kathy Forzley, Oakland County Heath Division’s manager and health officer, said there was a 9 percent increase from 2012-13 in admissions for treatment due to heroin use. Over the past five years, she said, heroin has been the reason for 25 percent of admissions for treatment.
Macomb has also seen a rise in heroin use, O’Brien said, and there’s always been a steady population, he said, partly because of the proximity to Detroit at the Eight Mile divide.
“The last three years, there has been a much greater demand based on the admission we get for treatment,” he said.
“The pattern right now, 42 percent of admissions are heroin, based on 1,886 people in 2013. Ten years ago it was 25 percent.”
A dangerous additive
O’Brien said opiate use, including heroin, has gone up each year.
“In 2004, 25 percent were opiates admission like oxycontin; now it is up to 54 percent for all opiates. This is like most of the nation,” he said. “Hoffman quit drinking and using drugs when he was 22. He just started up again in 2009 or 2010 and ended up in rehab and it still didn’t take. It speaks to the power of the addiction.”
And as if heroin isn’t dangerous enough, fentanyl, a synthetic morphine substitute roughly 100 times more powerful than morphine, is being mixed with or substituted for heroin.
Recent deaths in Pennsylvania and New York have been attributed to heroin and fentanyl blends.
Mary Mazur, Wayne County medical examiner’s spokeswoman, said heroin is an issue in the county as well, and fentanyl was involved in a number of cases in 2007.
But, she added, it’s hard to get statistics without talking to every person who ends up in the hospital for drug use.
“There is no such thing as safe heroin,” said the DEA’s Isaacson.
“Any heroin user is playing Russian roulette.”
Highly addictive drug
Tests by federal health officials on current heroin have shown the drug now being peddled on the street is 60 percent to 70 percent pure, an increase from 5 percent seen in the 1970s.
When potency was much lower, people chose to inject the drug to get high.
“Once the heroin purity went up, that allowed people to snort the drug and get high, therefore making it seem more acceptable to many segments of our society,” Isaacson said.
Heroin use, he said, has increased in part due to the rise in prices for prescription drugs.
“People will start abusing opiate painkillers, whether they are hydrocodone or the oxycodone products,” he said. “They get hooked on those pills, which are very expensive when you buy them on the street and people who can no longer afford that addiction will typically switch over and start using heroin because they can buy hits of heroin for much cheaper.”
Raj Mehta, a recovering heroin addict and an interventionist at Serenity Therapy Center in Rochester Hills, said heroin is one of the most difficult drugs to kick.
Twenty-five percent of people who try it once become addicted, he said.
“A majority of people are afraid to confront somebody that is using drugs or alcohol,” Mehta said.
“They don’t want to get involved in someone’s personal business or make them angry. They all become enablers, covering up instead of helping him.”
Isaacson said heroin use is found in every age group, but in recent years ages 15-39 have had more overdose deaths than other groups.
“I have done talks to parent groups in some of our nicer suburbs and it is surprising to hear that people who have attended their high schools have died of heroin overdoses,” he said.
Bloomberg News contributed