Heroin and opiates have claimed the lives of more than 400 New Zealanders in recent years. One person dies from a fatal overdose every fortnight, on average.

This week the world was shocked by the death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a suspected heroin overdose. Respected New Zealand actress Rena Owen, who did prison time for heroin in 1985, warned yesterday of the dangers of drug addiction.

Owen met Hoffman in 2007 at the premiere of Before the devil knows you're dead - in which Hoffman played a heroin addict.

"Phillip was a chameleon who was able to go to dark places and bring depth and humanity to his characters," said the actress,speaking to the Herald on Sunday from Los Angeles.


"His death is a tragedy that could have been avoided. For whatever reason, Phillip got back into using drugs and thus walked a dangerous edge. Sadly, this time he fell onto the side you can't comeback from."

"What I would say to anybody - and unfortunately I never listened to this in my wayward youth-but just say 'no'. Don't risk it." New Zealand Police and drug agencies say opiates claim the highest number of overdose casualties despite the more prevalent use of methamphetamine and other drugs.

Figures compiled from health and police databases for a draft government drug policy document show 429 deaths were attributed to heroin and opiates between 2004 and 2010 -about 61 a year, half of those overdoses.

National Drug Intelligence Bureau Detective Inspector Stuart Mills said misuse of heroin in New Zealand was minimal but it remained highly dangerous. Small pockets of opioid use still existed in New Zealand with homebake heroin produced from "diverted" pharmaceuticals.

Last year New Zealander Daniel Gray pleaded guilty to manslaughter after injecting his best mate Greg Wood with a fatal dose of heroin in Sydney during a stag night in 2009. Then in November, Auckland man Israel Hart died in a suspected heroin overdose.

Drug Foundation chief executive Ross Bell said users of the opioides heroin, methadone, morphine and codeine had the highest rates of overdose of any drug in New Zealand.

Read more: Darien Fenton: 'It's a miracle I survived'