Middle-class habit: Heroin addiction breaks out of America’s inner-cities

Philip Seymour Hoffman probably knew the risks but, like me, could not stop, says a university-educated addict

New York

For addicts like Jonathan, there doesn’t seem to be much mystery to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, from a suspected heroin overdose. “He probably didn’t even know what happened. He lost his life and had no intention of doing that, but that was the outcome. You might be the next person who doesn’t wake up.”

In early 2011, Jonathan very nearly didn’t. While he had been battling addiction to stimulants like cocaine and meth for a decade, he had only had one brush with heroin, snorting it with a colleague on a work trip abroad. “I got really sick,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a good experience.” Yet on this day, on his own in his apartment and unemployed at the time, the pull of heroin returned to him. And he wanted to inject it.

“That might seem insane but to an addict it’s perfectly reasonable,” he says. The possible perils did not even come into consideration. “It’s easy to convince yourself it’s okay to do. Your mind will tell you that.”

And so Jonathan, 43 and educated at one of America’s top universities, went about it. “They talk about how you just slip away and that’s exactly what happened to me. I passed out on the floor with the needle still in my arm and I stopped breathing.” When his partner found him he had already turned blue. Still now, he has no recollection of any of it. There was no brief moment of pleasure – nothing – just the blacking out. He woke up in hospital.

Stories like Jonathan’s – not his real name – are becoming increasingly common in the US today, like the drug itself. It has taken the death of a widely respected actor, from what would appear to have been an overdose, to bring what experts call an epidemic to the attention of the wider public.

After falling away from the rampant rates of usage in the 1970s, the drug in recent years has made a stealthy comeback, and not just in large cities like New York but in remoter areas too. Last week, Vermont’s governor dedicated an entire speech to the scourge of heroin in his state.

Packets of heroin seized by police near Boston last year (AP) Packets of heroin seized by police near Boston last year (AP)
“We’re seeing a resurgence of heroin,” Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, confirmed. “It cuts across all demographic groups. We used to think of a heroin as an inner city problem, but it’s now a problem we’re seeing across the nation among all populations and all ages.”

Experts believe that addicts who became hooked on abusing prescription drugs like the pain killer OxyContin are switching to heroin because it is easier to get nowadays, and cheaper too. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that while Americans abusing OxyContin fell from 566,000 in 2010 to 358,000 in 2012, those regularly using heroin leaped over the same period from 239,000 to 335,000.

Then there is the growing sophistication of the purveyors, who offer numerous brands of the drug with catchy, underworld names. The roughly 70 bags reported to have been found in Mr Hoffman’s apartment were stamped “Ace of Spades”. Just last week, police seized 33 pounds of heroin in the Bronx worth $8m stamped variously “NFL”, “government shutdown”, “iPhone”, and ‘“Olympics 2012”.

Nowhere is more awash than New York. Heroin seizures across New York State rose 67 per cent over four years, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Almost a fifth of all seizures in the US are in this state. Meanwhile, dealers are increasingly lacing the product with opiates even more powerful than heroin itself, like fentanyl, to keep their client’s hooked. Last month, officials reported a rash of 22 deaths in Western Pennsylvania alone from overdoses from fentanyl-enhanced heroin.

When asked if the dose that almost killed him had perhaps been mixed with something else, Jonathan, who lives in Atlanta, replies no. But then he isn’t sure, and this is one of the many dark secrets of the trade. Dealers don’t always tell addicts what they are getting. “It’s Russian Roulette when you don’t know what you’re getting or how strong it is,” he concedes.

And they don’t always know how to inject safely. “I injected meth so I knew what I was doing,” says Jonathan, before adding: “But you have to prepare it in a certain manner and dilute it with water. I don’t know how much I diluted it.”

Happy to have survived, Jonathan knows he has a long road ahead. He is now in a 12-step programme and has been sober since November, when he had his last relapse, though with meth not heroin – which he swears he won’t touch again. “I struggle with it every day. It’s as they tell you, it’s a lifelong issue that will never ever be resolved. You can only manage it and put a lid on it and you have to be constantly vigilant.”

Looking back on that near-fatal February day now, one thing sticks with him – how easy it was to get the heroin once the desire to have it had taken hold. “I didn’t even know that my drug dealer sold it until I asked. I had always assumed it was one of those drugs you had to know the right people to get it. Evidently it is easier to get than I thought it was.” And this is what the rest of the country is now learning.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'