Heroin and prescription drug overdoses have reached epidemic levels in the United States, surpassing car accidents and firearms as the leading cause of injury deaths, an annual assessment by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has found.
"Sadly, this report confirms what we've known for some time. ... Drug abuse is ending too many lives too soon and destroying families and communities," DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said. "Overdose deaths, particularly from prescription drugs and heroin, have reached epidemic levels.'
The report found 46,471 people died of drug overdoses in 2013, the latest data available. That same year, car accidents killed 35,369 people and firearms killed 33,636.
The number of drug overdoses has climbed more than 50 percent in the past decade. Drug overdose fatalities first became the leading cause of injury deaths in 2008, when a noticeable decline in car accident fatalities occurred.
Heroin use has exploded in recent years in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest and Northeast regions of the country. However, heroin use in the Pacific and Great Lakes regions has tripled since 2007, the DEA said.
Heroin was also ranked the No. 1 problem by the largest portion of local and state law enforcement agency authorities taking part in the 2015 study, Rosenberg said Wednesday.
Methamphetamine was ranked the top drug threat in 2014, and controlled prescription drugs was No. 1 in 2013, according to previous DEA surveys.
The DEA report found prescription drugs a far deadlier problem, however.
More people abuse prescription medication than cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, MDMA and PCP combined, and prescription drug deaths have outpaced those of cocaine and heroin combined since 2002, according to the report.
"We must reach young people at an even earlier age and teach them about its many dangers and horrors," Rosenberg said of drug abuse.
Cocaine use declining
But he noted one positive trend shown in the report: the declining use and availability of cocaine.
In 2014, cocaine availability stabilized at levels "well below availability levels observed prior to 2007," the first year drug agents noted a significant decline in cocaine availability, the report found.
Rosenberg also expressed opposition to the marijuana legalization movement in the country, and frustration with efforts to legalize the drug based on highlighting its medicinal properties.
More than 20 states permit the use of some form of medical marijuana, while pro-marijuana groups in six states hope to hold referendums next year on legalizing the drug for recreational use.
"What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal, because it's not," he said before noting that elements of the plant have promise for medicinal uses.
The National Drug Threat Assessment provides an up-to-date look at the many challenges related to drug abuse and drug trafficking in the U.S. Information for the DEA's annual drug threat survey is provided by respondents from more than 1,100 state and local law enforcement agencies.
Highlights in the report include drug abuse and trafficking trends for drugs such as heroin, prescription drugs, and the hundreds of synthetic drugs manufactured outside the U.S. and imported into this country.
Among the NDTA findings:
- Since 2002, prescription drug deaths have outpaced those of cocaine and heroin combined. Abuse of controlled prescription drugs is higher than that of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, MDMA and PCP combined.
- Most of the heroin available in the U.S. comes from Mexico and Colombia, with Mexico's violent drug cartels remaining the primary suppliers of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. The carheir affiliated gangs "are a significant threat to the safety and security of our communities," the report said.
- Heroin availability is up across the country, as are abusers, overdoses and overdose deaths. Law enforcement nationwide report a significant spike in heroin abuse as a result of prescription opioid addiction.
- Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 25 to 40 times more potent than heroin, has caused more than 700 deaths in the U.S. between late 2013 and early 2015.
- Heroin overdose deaths are also a result of high-purity batches unknown to the user, as well as heroin adulterants such as fentanyl, which is sometimes added to heroin batches or sold by itself as heroin, unknown to the user.
- Synthetic designer drugs from China -- particularly cannabinoids, cathinones, and phenethylamines -- continue to wreak havoc in the United States.
Some material for this report came from AFP, Reuters and AP.