With the high-profile death of 46-year-old actor Philip Seymour Hoffman on Sunday, the nation lost a gifted stage and screen artist far too soon. But Hoffman’s apparent drug overdose also conveyed an important message about heroin, the narcotic found in his apartment.
The circumstances of his passing — his movie-star status, his death in an expensive New York City neighborhood — suggest this is a pricey drug for only the elite or hard-core users. The alarming truth is that heroin is a cheap, potent and dangerous drug that can be easily found in Minnesota.
“Most parents would never believe in a million years that their children would have access to heroin, but they do. It’s literally just a matter of getting the right text number and getting it that way,’’ said Carol Falkowski, who has tracked drug-use trends in the state since 1986.
Falkowski recently returned from a nationwide meeting of community drug-abuse experts who work with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She and her counterparts collect and exchange data on 20 major U.S. cities. Seventeen of them reported high levels of heroin use. Having most cities reporting the same trend at the same time is rare.
“It’s reminiscent of the way crack cocaine spread across the country in the 1980s,’’ Falkowski said, adding that heroin shares two key qualities with crack. Like crack, today’s heroin is a low-cost, high-purity drug, meaning users get a lot of high for little cost. The wide use of prescription painkillers is also thought to play a role in heroin use, since people get hooked on drugs commonly found in households and then turn to heroin for a replacement high that’s often cheaper and easier to score.
Falkowski’s periodic reports provide a deeply troubling look at heroin use here. While statewide figures aren’t available, numbers from Hennepin and Ramsey counties provide a useful snapshot. “Heroin-involved visits at hospital emergency departments nearly tripled from 2004 to 2011 (from 1,189 to 3,493), and rose 54.8 percent from 2010 to 2011 alone,” according to Falkowski’s report from last summer. About 42 percent of patients admitted to treatment programs for heroin were ages 18 to 25.
On Tuesday, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office announced that 2013 was “the county’s deadliest year ever,” with 54 heroin overdose deaths, up from eight in 2010. The deaths of three St. Francis teenagers last year underscored that heroin is so potent that it can be easy for both new and experienced users to overdose.
It’s unclear if state legislators are aware of this public-safety crisis and the need for smart policy to combat it. But they ought to heed the wisdom of one of their colleagues, state Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who lost a daughter to heroin.
Eaton is readying legislation that already has been dubbed “Steve’s Law,’’ in honor of a young Minnesotan who overdosed and died. The bill would allow law enforcement, first responders and trained lay people to carry naloxone, a prescription drug that can counteract heroin in someone who is overdosing, potentially saving a life. The bill also would provide protection for those drug users who might hesitate to call for help when a fellow user is overdosing.
The bill, which is similar to measures already enacted in other states, should be known as “Steve and Ariel’s Law.” Eaton’s daughter, Ariel, was just 23 when she died of a heroin overdose in 2007. Had her mother’s legislation been in place, it’s possible Ariel might have lived. Her companion delayed calling for help for fear of arrest. And if the police officer who was called to the scene — a nearby restaurant manager observed the companion’s unusual behavior — had carried naloxone, perhaps there would have been enough time to save Ariel.
A 2012 statewide drug-abuse plan that Falkowski oversaw should also be required reading for legislators. It offers wise recommendations — such as safeguards to prevent patients from doctor-shopping for painkillers — that have yet to be acted on fully.
Eaton also urges parents to take action, if necessary, adding that increasing isolation, trouble in school and sudden acne breakouts are red flags. “Heroin is the last thing I would have thought of,” said Eaton, remembering her daughter’s battle with substance abuse. “Because of what’s going on, I would hope it would be the first thing parents think of. It could save their child’s life.”