Philip Seymour Hoffman’s OD highlights resurgence heroin, now cheaper and more potent

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
A man prepares heroin in Zhukovsky, Russia, near Moscow. To produce krokodil, which has a comparable effect to heroin but is much cheaper to make, users mix codeine with gasoline, paint thinner, iodine, hydrochloric acid and red phosphorous. (Reuters)

Illicit drugs, it appears, go in and out of fashion, like the size of men's jacket lapels and women's skirt lengths.

Heroin was never really out but it's been making a major comeback the last few years thanks to lower prices and higher potency.

The opium derivative that felled Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith, not to mention John Belushi, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Lenny Bruce and a raft of other artists, has been embraced by a new generation seduced by its singular high.

"There's 17- and 18-year-olds that are getting onto this stuff because [for] $10 you get a bundle," Connie Thompson, a former heroin addict turned addictions counsellor, told CBC News. "That'll get you going for a few hours."

Heroin's renewed popularity has not happened overnight. As far back as 2010, Postmedia News reported that a surge in production of opium in Afghanistan since 2001 was fuelling heroin supplies. The war-torn country now supplies 92 per cent of the world's opium, Postmedia News said.

Ironically, the Islamist Taliban government suppressed cultivation of the opium poppy until it was overthrown by U.S. and allied forces after the 9/11 terror attacks masterminded from Afghanistan.

The glut of opium began driving down heroin prices while its potency increased.

[ Related: Theater community mourns Philip Seymour Hoffman in NYC ]

The United States has seen heroin spread to teens in the country's Midwest as law enforcement cracks down on abuse of prescription opioid painkillers such as oxycodone, Paul Coleman, who runs the Maryhaven drug-treatment centre in Columbus, Ohio, told the Globe and Mail.

“You can buy a dose of heroin for less than a six-pack of beer” in central Ohio, he said.

Heroin still trails other illicit drugs such a cocaine in popularity but the Globe said experts are worried about the speed of the recent upsurge. A U.S. government study found the number of heroin users jumped to 669,000 in 2012 from 373,000 five years earlier.

The governor of Vermont (yes, Vermont), Peter Shumlin, last month declared the bucolic state was in the midst of a "full-blown heroin crisis," the Globe said. The number of overdose deaths doubled between 2012 and last year, and the number of people seeking treatment for heroin addiction has tripled since 2000.

Up-to-date statistics on heroin use in Canada are hard to come by. Statistics Canada data up to 2007 shows heroin trails well behind marijuana and cocaine in the number of police-reported drug offences, though the biggest cities account for a major percentage of cases.

"In 2007, fewer than one per cent of drug-related offences involved heroin, a proportion that has remained fairly constant over the years," StatsCan said in its 2009 report. "Most heroin offences are concentrated in large urban areas, particularly Vancouver.

Heroin accounted for a third of reported adult overdose incidents in Victoria and Vancouver between 2008 and 2011, according to 2012 study by the Centre for Addictions Research.

The controversial Insite supervised-injection site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside was set up in 2003 in response to a wave of heroin overdose deaths in the 1990s.

The Conservative government failed to get the Health Canada-licensed facility shut down after a legal fight. Ottawa has moved against another Vancouver-based program that provided prescription heroin to a small group of addicts, a move that's also under legal challenge.

“The prime minister and I do not believe we are serving the interests of those who are addicted to drugs, or those who need our help, by giving them the very drugs they are addicted to,” Health Minister Rona Ambrose said last fall, the Globe reported.

[ Related: Cory Monteith died from an overdose of heroin, B.C. coroner says ]

Fear of heroin has been exacerbated by reports drug dealers are cutting it with fentanyl, a powerful opiod painkiller.

Fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, Reuters reported, and investigators were awaiting the results of Hoffman's autopsy to learn whether the heroin he used contained it. But The Associated Press reported Tuesday the packets of heroin recovered in his New York apartment tested negative for the substance.

There's a slight Canadian connection to Hoffman's drug-overdose death.

AP reported Montreal-born musician and producer Robert Aaron was among four people arrested on drug charges related to the heroin found at Hoffman's apartment.

Aaron, a keyboardist and sax player who was born Robert Vineberg, worked on records with with many well-known stars such as Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Wyclef Jean, AP said.