Tuesday, February 04, 2014
When Are We Going to Start Doing Something About This Epidemic?
Detectives found dozens of small packages in the West Village apartment where Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor, died on Sunday. Most were branded, some with purple letters spelling out Ace of Spades, others bearing the mark of an ace of hearts. At least five were empty, and in the trash.
Each of the packages, which can sell for as little as $6 on the street, offered a grim window into Mr. Hoffman’s personal struggle with a resurgent addiction that ultimately, the police said, proved fatal. And the names and logos reflect a fevered underground marketing effort in a city that is awash in cheap heroin.
Heroin seizures in New York State are up 67 percent over the last four years, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration said. Last year, the agency’s New York office seized 144 kilograms of heroin, nearly 20 percent of its seizures nationwide, valued at roughly $43 million. One recent raid, in the Bronx last week, netted 33 pounds of heroin and hundreds of thousands of branded bags, some stamped “N.F.L.,” a timely nod to the Super Bowl.
From 2010 to 2012, after several years of decline, heroin-related overdose deaths increased 84 percent in New York City to 382, according to the Health Department statistics. Staten Island, where prescription drug addiction has been especially virulent, has the city’s highest rate of heroin overdoses, though a connection has not been established.
Bags bearing different stamps turn up in raids of large-scale heroin mills around the city.
They are named for popular celebrities or luxury products, or the very thoroughfares along which the drugs travel: Lady Gaga. Gucci. I-95. They reflect an increasingly young and middle-class clientele, who often move from prescription pills to needles: Twilight. MySpace. And they often indicate little about the quality or purity of the product, which is diluted with baking soda or, in some cases, infant laxatives, officials said.
To be sure, there is variety, especially in potency and reliability. Recently, 22 people died in and around Pittsburgh after overdosing from a batch of heroin mixed with fentanyl, a powerful opiate usually found in patches given to cancer patients. Heroin containing fentanyl, which gives a more intense but potentially more dangerous high, has begun to appear in New York City, said Kati Cornell, a spokeswoman for Bridget G. Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor for the city. An undercover officer bought fentanyl-laced heroin on Jan. 14 from a dealer in the Bronx, she said. The dealer did not warn of the mixture, which is not apparent to the user; subsequent testing revealed it. (The patches themselves had turned up in drug seizures in the city before, she said.)
Ultimately, users have no way to be sure what they’re buying. “There’s no F.D.A. approval; it’s made however they decide to make it that day,” Ms. Brennan said. The same shipment of heroin may be packaged under several different labels, she said. “At the big mills, we’ll seize 20 stamps. It’s all the same.”
Far from plaguing only big cities, heroin has emerged as a grave concern in places like Vermont, where last month the governor devoted his entire State of the State message to what he said was “a full-blown heroin crisis”there.
But almost as long as there has been heroin in the United States, New York City has been its hub. Certainly much has changed since the 1970s, when addicts flooded shooting galleries and flashy drug traffickers like Nicky Barnes, known as Mr. Untouchable, became household names. The drug is still smuggled into the country from faraway poppy fields, still cut from kilo-size quantities in hothouse operations secreted around the city, still diluted in coffee grinders and still sold to needy consumers.
Various brands, too, have been around for decades. “There always have been markings going back as far as Nicky Barnes,” said James J. Hunt, the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York office. “Now the difference is that the addicts you see a lot are young suburban kids starting on prescription drugs, and they graduate to heroin.”
The trade has become more organized, officials said, from the top to the bottom. Delivery services abound for those who can afford a dealer who arrives at the door with a grab bag of drugs. Highly organized mills have been found in middle-class city areas like Riverdale, in the Bronx, and Fort Lee, N.J., or, in one case, in a Midtown Manhattan apartment near the Lincoln Tunnel. Such locations draw less scrutiny from potential robbers, and often provide ready access to major roads for deliveries up and down the Eastern corridor.
“It’s like somebody setting up a big production factory in China and the product is going to go out through to the world,” Ms. Brennan said. “That’s how I look at these production mills that we’re seeing in New York. Some will stay here in the city, but it’s mostly intended for distribution.” (A $6 bag in the city could fetch as much as $30 or $40 in parts of New England, authorities have said.)
Some officials fear that efforts to drive down abuse of prescription medications could be contributing to rising heroin use in New York City, as it has in places like Maine.
“What we’re seeing, as pills become more difficult to access, is a shift to the black market and heroin,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the chief medical officer at the Phoenix House Foundation, a drug-treatment center, and president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “It’s not easy to get the opioid genie back into the bottle.”
It is a cycle that friends of Mr. Hoffman, who was 46, said may have recently taken hold in his life as well.
Last year, he checked into a rehabilitation program for about 10 days, a move that came after a reliance on prescription pills led to a return to heroin, after what he said had been a clean period spanning two decades.
The Police Department on Monday said detectives were working to track down the origin of the substances Mr. Hoffman used, though a police official conceded it could be difficult to determine. “Just because it’s a name brand doesn’t mean that anyone has an exclusive on that name,” the official said. “Ace of Spades; I would venture to say that someone else has used that name.”
The ace of hearts logo has appeared in at least one case in the city, the police said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration said it had seen “Ace of Spades” branding in a 2009 drug case on Long Island. It has been seen in photographs of heroin packages at least as far back as 2005.
Investigators will also test the paraphernalia found near Mr. Hoffman, as well as the syringe found in his left arm, to determine whether the mixture he consumed had been adulterated in any way, the official said. Results from those tests were expected sooner than the toxicology tests by the city medical examiner.
For law enforcement officials, Mr. Hoffman’s death was a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in a highly addictive drug that ravaged urban communities in the 1970s.
“People who study drug trends talk about generational amnesia,” said Ms. Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor. “We’re now 40 years out from our last major heroin epidemic and I think people have lost their memory of that drug’s devastation.”
Indeed, she said, some of the most common heroin brands suggest as much: Grim Reaper; a skull and crossbones; D.O.A.