Hoffman's Death Highlights Heroin Epidemic: 4 Facts To Know About The Drug Crisis

Over the weekend, legendary actor Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away from what appears to be a heroin overdose. The body of Hoffman, an addict who'd spent close to 20 years in recovery, was found in a New York apartment beside roughly 50 bags of heroin and used syringes, investigators said Monday. Hoffman's death comes six months after Cory Monteith's overdose — another high-profile actor who had also checked in rehab months earlier; whose early death also stunned even his closest family and friends; and who died after injecting heroin (in Monteith's case, he'd ingested codeine and alcohol as well).

Some drug experts say these deaths epitomize what's being called a "heroin epidemic"— a surge in both how popular the drug is, and how dangerous it's become. More precisely, writes Jeff Deeney at The Atlantic, "It’s a particularly bad time to be an injecting heroin user." In the United States, mortality and addiction rates blamed on heroin are on the rise, and a fentanyl-tainted batch of the drug recently went cross-country across America, causing scores of deaths in a handful of states.

Here are four things you need to know about the "heroin epidemic."

1. There's a "new wave" of heroin users

The last decade saw a spike in narcotic abuse, with drugs like OxyContin being abused by middle-income Americans who, at least at first, weren't anything like your typical street drug addict. Popping prescription drugs seems a long stretch from injecting heroin, but for a fraction of those users, their drug addiction will spiral into poverty — and the last decade's prescription drug abusers have become this generation's fresh wave of heroin addicts.

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In the last few years, the Feds have cracked down on pain clinics that sell or give out prescription with ease, and medications like OxyContin have become harder to find. Heroin, by contrast, is cheaper than OxyContin and relatively easy to track down. So the estimated number of prescription-drug abusers has dropped, and the number of heroin addicts continues to rise.

2. The number of heroin users has nearly doubled

According to CDC data, there were roughly 373,000 heroin users in America in 2007. In 2012, that figure had spiked to about 669,000 — close to double the number of heroin addicts the U.S. had seen five years earlier. And deaths from drug overdoses have risen sharply in the last decade, linked in part to the increased abuse of prescription drugs.

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As far as drugs go, heroin is one of the hardest to quit. The drug physically changes the reward and pleasure centers of your brain, and both brain and body become hooked on the drug: one in four people who try heroin will become addicts. Even if you manage to quit, success rates from a rehab program are low — only between 10 and 20 percent of rehab patients manage to stay off drugs in the long-term. And after a long period of abstinence, using a quantity of a drug your body was once used to can kill you. (It's not yet clear if this is what happened to Hoffman.)

3. Needles are causing more infections

Even for people who use heroin just once, the risk of infection from the needle is high. In 2010, a study found that the rate of infection in drug users was about one-third. Bacterial infections like abscesses and cellulitis can spread like wildfire through the body, leading to paralysis, need for amputation, and/or death.

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And that's without going into the well-documented risk of hepatitis, HIV, and drug-resistant infections like MRSA from drug needles. Because street drug users don't often have healthcare plans, the cost of becoming infected — both in terms of physical and financial price — can be deadly.

4. Obamacare Could Be Life-Saving For Heroin Addicts

As the Affordable Care Act becomes more ingrained among the American public, it could prove miraculous for heroin addicts. Obamacare caters in particular to those who can't afford private healthcare, and it will ensure that treatment is more broadly funded for addiction and mental-health disorders in general.

Though some critics say that the Feds haven't and won't do enough to treat the chronic disease of addiction, things are moving in the right direction, notes Deeney at the Atlantic. Writes Deeney, a recovering addict and addiction volunteer himself: "U.S. drug policies are shifting. Slowly, and not enough, but there is progress. Mandatory minimums are being phased out. Treatment is increasingly available to those caught up in the criminal justice system."