NEW YORK — Sometimes the traffickers inject liquid heroin into jeans so they can ship the drug where it needs to go. Sometimes it’s a fake coconut or bananas.
In a few cases, according to federal officials, heroin is injected into the bellies of dogs.
However it arrives, hundreds of thousands of Americans have been turning to heroin more and more in recent years, and officials across the country are sounding the alarm as fatal heroin overdoses have more than doubled in some states over the last decade.
Although the autopsy results for Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman are not yet known, packets of the drug were found Sunday in his New York apartment where he died, a needle sticking in his arm.
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“It’s reached epidemic proportions here in the United States,” Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Rusty Payne said of heroin use.
Payne attributed the problem to a surge in heroin crossing the nation’s southwestern border, where soaring seizures of the drug are a sign of soaring smuggling operations. In 2008, the DEA reported seizing 559 kilograms of heroin at the southwestern border; that more than tripled to 1,855 kilograms in 2012.
Other health experts and law-enforcement agencies have said pain-medication addicts have turned to heroin to get a similar high after they lose access to popular prescription pills such as OxyContin.
In 2011, at least 178,000 Americans used heroin for the first time, according to the latest available estimate from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, almost doubling from five years earlier. And early indicators suggest that those numbers will continue to rise.
“This last year, we’ve seen a big uptick in heroin use. It’s become rapidly very popular,” Theodore Cicero, a professor of neuropharmacology at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday.
For seven years, Cicero has been monitoring trends for patients in 150 drug-treatment centers across the country. In 2011-12, about 10 percent of the people going into the drug-abuse clinics were getting treatment for heroin abuse; that has risen to 20 to 25 percent of those clinics’ patients over the past year, he said.
“We’re seeing patterns of heroin abuse increasing across the population, but now it’s becoming a rural and suburban issue rather than an urban issue,” Cicero said.
Depending on the results of his autopsy, Hoffman may put the biggest face on a crisis that has hit the Northeast especially hard.
“What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug-addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin said in his State of the State address in January, which was primarily focused on the state’s drug epidemic.
“We have seen an over 250 percent increase in people receiving heroin treatment here in Vermont since 2000, with the greatest percentage increase, nearly 40 percent, in just the past year,” Shumlin said.
Heroin use — particularly among those under age 30 — in Washington has increased dramatically, according to a University of Washington report released in June.
In King County, overdose deaths involving the drug increased from 49 in 2009 to 84 in 2012, with all of the increase coming in the under-30 age group, according to researcher Caleb Banta-Green, author of the report from the UW Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute.
Regions with the highest rates of heroin evidence collected per 100,000 population now are not urban areas but those in less populated parts of the state, including the westernmost counties from Clallam to Clark and the northern region from Whatcom to Snohomish counties, which includes San Juan and Island counties.
Includes material from Seattle Times archives.