NEW YORK (MainStreet) Death by heroin is all too common and the recent burial of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman is the latest tragedy in a nationwide drug epidemic that does not discriminate.
Glee star Cory Monteith also struggled with heroin addiction. The 31-year-old actor died in a British Columbia hotel room last summer after taking a lethal dose of heroin with alcohol, morphine and codeine.
"While exotic and expensive in the past, today heroin is a cheap alternative to prescription pain killers and is sold in a very strong form on the streets in virtually every American city and is highly addictive," said A. R. Mohammad, a board-certified psychiatrist and an associate professor at the University of Southern California where he teaches addiction medicine.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), heroin overdoses killed more than 3,000 people across the United States in 2010, a 45% increase since 2006. However, the recent legalization of cannabis in Colorado offers new hope for kicking the habit.
"Legalization and decriminalization of marijuana is likely to result in fewer overdoses that are caused by far more powerful substances," said Darrin Duber-Smith, professor with the Metropolitan State University in Denver. "Marijuana can replace many dangerous substances for those who wish to use these types of drugs."
Marijuana experts insist that cannabis is not a gateway drug to harder substances such as heroin or cocaine.
"There is no evidence that marijuana has ever caused an overdose resulting in death," said Joseph Friedman, a pharmacist and member of the National Association of Specialty Pharmacy's (NASP) management of medical marijuana task force. "In fact, marijuana might help cure addictions and prevent drug overdoses."
Using cannabis for pain relief is similar to using prescription medication for pain management; however, cannabis is perceived by advocates as a mild, more benign and affordable solution over the long term.
In New York, one OxyContin pill on the street costs about $30. For the same price, buyers can get six cellophane bags of heroin, according to the DEA. In Colorado, the cost of an eighth of an ounce of marijuana starts at $25 with one ounce or 28 grams producing about sixty joints, according to researchers.
"People that use prescription pills eventually find that they are too expensive and difficult to get but cannabis is an agricultural commodity that is very easy to grow in large volumes rather cheaply," Duber-Smith told MainStreet.
Hoffman reportedly began ingesting prescription pills in 2012, and police found five different prescription drugs in Hoffman's Bethune Street apartment in Manhattan on the day the popular celebrity overdosed. One of the five was buprenorphine, which helps heroin addicts to withdraw.
"There is no cure for addiction as is the case with all chronic diseases," said Mohammad. "But with sophisticated pharmaceuticals that target the craving, addicts can live normal lives as long as they maintain their treatment under trained medical professionals."
While Hoffman is now resting in peace from his addiction, many other heroin users are not.
An estimated 13.5 million people in the world ingest opium-like substances, including 9.2 million heroin users, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World, a nonprofit public benefit corporation.