Heroin availability and use are increasing nationwide, DEA says

Is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death of an apparent heroin overdose a tragic aberration, or does it speak to something larger?

Unfortunately, authorities say, he’s not alone. Heroin use and related overdoses are climbing in some parts of the country.

The issue entered in the spotlight after Hoffman was found dead at his Manhattan apartment Sunday. Authorities have not yet determined a cause of death and are testing to see whether the substances found at his apartment are heroin.

A needle was in the actor’s left arm, and investigators found eight empty glassine-type bags that commonly contain heroin, law enforcement sources said.

According to TMZ, Hoffman said last year that he’d fallen off the wagon, started taking prescription pills and slipped into snorting heroin.

RELATED STORY: Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman found dead

That experience is not uncommon.

In its drug threat assessment report for 2013, the Drug Enforcement Administration cited people switching to heroin from abusing prescription drugs as a possible reason behind the uptick in overdose deaths.

The agency warned that people who are addicted to opioid prescription pills are now finding highly pure heroin easier and cheaper to obtain.

It produces a similar, if more dangerous, high because unlike the pills, there is no way to regulate the dosage of heroin, given the undetermined purity.

“These abusers turned to heroin because it was cheaper and/or more easily obtained than prescription drugs and because heroin provides a high similar to that of prescription opioids,” the report read.

It continued: “Those abusers who have recently switched to heroin are at higher risk for accidental overdose. Unlike with prescription drugs, heroin purity and dosage amounts vary, and heroin is often cut with other substances, all of which could cause inexperienced abusers to accidentally overdose.”

Despite the rise in the number of heroin users, the figure remains smaller than the total number of people abusing prescription drugs.

‘It’s a frequently fatal condition’

Hoffman was an acclaimed actor who in the 2007 film “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” played a heroin user embezzling money to feed his drug habit.

His public comments about his battle with substance abuse illustrate the struggles many addicts face, according to HLN’s Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction specialist.

“Someone with opiate addiction, they are doing pushups their whole lives. And they must work on it all the time. And even working on it, there’s a high probability of relapse. And God willing, they get adequate treatment, and they re-engage in treatment, and things go well,” Pinsky said.

“But often, it’s a frequently fatal condition. We just simply have to continually remind ourselves of that. And now it has taken a glorious, glorious talent from us.”

Pinsky continued: “The fact is he had a medical illness like a malignancy, like a cancer, that was going to kill him. And it eventually did and that’s true of opiate addiction generally, particularly of heroin.”

High-profile busts

According to the latest DEA report, heroin availability rose in 2012, most likely because of an uptick in Mexican production and traffickers expanding into new markets.

The amount of heroin seized each year at the southwest border climbed 232% between 2008 and 2012.

Along with availability, overdoses are on the rise in certain areas.

The number of heroin deaths in the Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota, area almost tripled from 2010 to 2011, from 16 to 46 deaths, according to the report.

In 2011, heroin was the most commonly found illicit substance involved in alcohol and/or drug deaths in Philadelphia, with 251 of those cases showing a presence of heroin. That was a significant increase from 138 cases in 2010.

In western Pennsylvania, officials said that 22 people died in a six-county region in one week from overdoses of a laced version of the drug.

Although it’s an uphill battle, authorities have gained some ground recently with some high-profile heroin busts.

A McDonald’s employee in Pittsburgh was arrested last week after undercover police officers said they discovered her selling heroin in Happy Meal boxes. Also last week, in New York, DEA agents seized 33 pounds of heroin valued at $8 million by busting an alleged heroin manufacturing mill.

“Heroin is pummeling the northeast, leaving addiction, overdoses and fear in its wake,” said James J. Hunt, special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York office.

™ & © 2014 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.