Law enforcement and health officials say heroin-related deaths are on the rise in Los Angeles County, after a sharp dip in 2012. But officials in L.A. and other Southern California counties say the heroin problem is not as serious as the problem of prescription drug abuse.
"Heroin deaths are increasing and opioid deaths from prescriptions are increasing even more," said Jonathan Fielding, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. "The difficulty with all of these is the fact that you need greater doses to get more stimulation."
The issue has received new attention in the wake of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's suspected death by heroin overdose this week.
Various southern California counties have experienced different rates of change, but health officials across the board are concerned because many addicts who abuse pharmaceutical drugs graduate to heroin — largely because heroin is much cheaper.
In Los Angeles County, there were 225 heroin deaths in 2010. That number plunged to 29 in 2012, but last year it crept up to 46, according to the L.A. County Coroner’s Office.
The Drug Enforcement Administration began seizing greater quantities of heroin in 2008, said Sarah Pullen, a DEA special agent in Los Angeles. Seizures in the L.A. area have almost tripled in the last three years, she added, noting that the majority of heroin in Southern California comes from Mexico.
Both Orange and Riverside Counties have seen a decrease in heroin deaths in recent years, but an increase in prescription drug-related hospital visits and deaths.
Neither L.A., Orange, or Riverside County officials provided precise figures for deaths from pharmaceutical opioids, but they said prescription abuse and death are reaching unsettling levels. The California Department of Public Health reported more than 1,100 such deaths overall in 2010, the last year for which data are available.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown a steady increase in opioid overdose deaths since 1999. In 2010 more than 38,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US; nearly 60 percent of those cases involved pharmaceutical drugs.
Surveys show usage among teens and young adults is on the rise, and many admit they started with prescription drugs and moved on to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to get, Pullen said.
It’s showing up in suburbs and rural areas and in both wealthy and low-income areas, according to experts.
Pullen echoed the concerns of officials in the U.S. northeast about finding heroin that is "laced with other substances ... people need to realize we don’t know what we are doing when we put these substances in our body."