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February 5, 2014

New wave of heroin claims Hoffman and others

NEW YORK — Heroin was supposed to be an obsolete evil, a blurry memory of a dangerous drug that dwelled in some dark recess of American culture.

But smack never really disappeared. It comes in waves, and one such swell is cresting across the nation, sparking widespread worry among government officials and driving up overdose deaths — including, it appears, that of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Fueled by a crackdown on prescription pain killers and an abundant supply of cheap heroin that’s more potent than ever, the drug that has killed famous rock stars and everyday Americans alike is making headlines again.

“Heroin has this sort of dark allure to it that’s part of its mystique,” said Eric Schneider, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote the book “Smack: Heroin in the City,” a historical account of the drug. “What I’ve heard from heroin users is that flirting with addiction is part of the allure: to sort of see how close to that edge you can get and still pull back.”

Medical examiners have not made an official determination of the cause of the 46-year-old actor’s death, but police have been investigating it as an overdose. Hoffman was found in a bathroom with a syringe in his arm.

Authorities say a number of factors are fueling the drug’s use, including relatively low prices and a less demonized image than it once had. Rather than seeing heroin as the point-of-no-return drug of strung-out junkies — in his 1967 song “Heroin,” Lou Reed called it “my wife and ... my life” — some users now see it as an inexpensive alternative to oxycodone and other prescription opiate drugs.

“People think that it is someone who is a bum, who’s homeless, who has no money and who is sort of living at the very bottom,” said Michael Clune, a former addict who wrote the memoir ‘White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin.’ “When the truth is, it really is everywhere.”

The number of recorded heroin overdose deaths nearly doubled from 1,842 in 2000 to 3,036 in 2010, according to the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heroin deaths still account for a relatively small percentage of total drug overdose deaths: less than 10 percent in 2010, for example.

Last month, the governor of Vermont devoted almost his entire State of the State address to the state’s heroin problem, calling on the Legislature to pass laws encouraging treatment and seek ideas on the best way to prevent people from becoming addicted.

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