Heroin Deaths Continue to Rise in the Northeast Unabated

By Paul Gaita 02/06/14

While the rash of heroin-related overdoses in the northeast U.S. climbs, Philip Seymour Hoffman's death may in some small way help turn the tide.

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While the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a heroin overdose has shocked both the entertainment industry and the public at large, his passing is an all-too-familiar refrain for dozens of families throughout the Northeastern United States, where scores of individuals, including many young people, have succumbed to heroin-related deaths.

In New York City alone, deaths from heroin overdose increased 84 percent between 2010 and 2012, but the city’s suburbs and smaller communities have also been rocked by the rise in drug use. On the same day that news outlets reported Hoffman’s death, three other deaths over the span of a single week in New York’s Westchester County were attributed to heroin overdose, with all victims below the age of 30.

Their loss adds to the drug-related death toll taken by the region in the last few years, where dozens of young people have succumbed to overdoses. Similar stories are heard up and down the Atlantic seaboard, from Western Pennsylvania, where 22 people died in less than two weeks from a lethal mixture of heroin and the painkiller fentanyl, to Vermont, where the state’s pastoral façade has been so tainted by heroin use that Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his entire State of the State Message in January to the heroin crisis in his state. And now New Jersey has joined the morbid chorus by announcing that nine people have died or been hospitalized in recent months after overdosing on fentanyl-tainted smack.

The statistics in the northeast are reflective of the rise in heroin use throughout the United States, as reflected by a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that cites at least 178,000 Americans used the drug for the first time in 2011 alone – a figure twice as large as numbers culled from 2006. The rise in usage is attributed to an overall increase in supply, thanks in part to an explosion in shipments across the southwestern border of the United States, and greater organization among Stateside dealers, who have moved their operations out of the city and into the suburbs to avoid scrutiny.

The crackdown on abuse of prescription drugs has also driven many opiate users to find an equivalent high from heroin, which can be purchased for as low as $6 a bag in many parts of the northeast. The move is often a fatal one, as Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer of the Phoenix House Foundation, notes. “It’s not easy to get the opioid genie back into the bottle,” he said.

If there's anything that Hoffman's death may have taught us, it's that any one of us is equally susceptible to lethal drugs. Heroin does not discriminate. But his death does offer hope for those who may be on the verge of going over the edge. "If one of us dies of an overdose," he once told friend and fellow addict Aaron Sorkin on the set of Charlie Wilson's War. "Probably 10 people who were about to won’t.”

Here's a short CNN news report on fentanyl-related deaths in Maryland:

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.