The number of overdose deaths involving heroin is rising at a faster rate than any other illicit drug in the United States, according to statistics released by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on Tuesday.
The DEA's National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary reports that the while the number of heroin users has been rising rapidly — there were 435,000 heroin users in 2014, a three-fold increase over 2007 — overdoses have been rising even faster. The DEA reports that the number of overdose deaths involving heroin jumped from 3,036 deaths in 2010 to 10,574 in 2014.
The numbers, even though they're two years out of date, highlight the huge impact that heroin has had across the United States, particularly in the north-east.
But the survey didn't just point to heroin as a problem — the DEA said deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl and its analogues increased by 79 percent in just one year from 2013 to 2014. This is the first time that information on fentanyl has been included in the report.
The DEA said that traffickers have been exploiting high demand for illicit prescription painkillers, tranquilizers, and sedatives by producing fake pills containing fentanyl, and putting them out onto the streets. That practise allegedly led to the deaths of 19 people in Florida and California during the first three months of the year.
"We tend to overuse words such as 'unprecedented' and 'horrific,' but the death and destruction connected to heroin and opioids is indeed unprecedented and horrific," said DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg in the release. "The problem is enormous and growing, and all of our citizens need to wake up to these facts."
The DEA also reports that there's been an 80-percent increase in seizures of heroin, from 3,733 kilograms in 2011 to 6,722 kilograms in 2015.
The new statistics coincidence with the UN World Drug Report 2016, released last Thursday, which called the current American situation an "epidemic." It said the cheap supply of heroin has helped push the number of users to a 20-year high, leading to a higher number of overdoses.
The UN report pegged the number of heroin users in the US higher than the DEA, at 1 million in 2014. That report said heroin-related deaths have gone up five-fold since 2000.
Experts believe the rise in heroin use may be linked to recently introduced restrictions that require manufacturers to produce tamper-resistant pills that are difficult to crush, and therefore, harder to abuse.
"This has caused a partial shift from the misuse of these prescription opioids to heroin," Angela Me, the chief researcher responsible for the UN report, told Reuters, adding that a greater supply means prices have gone down, which may also be a contributing factor.
Earlier this year, President Barack Obama proposed $1.1 billion in new funding over two years to address heroin and opioid abuse.
North of the border, Canada is dealing with an opioid crisis of its own, with one province declaring a state of emergency due to the huge uptick in fentanyl-related deaths.
While up-to-date national statistics are unavailable in Canada, some patchwork numbers reported by local governments suggest that, between 2009 and 2014, fentanyl was implicated in 655 deaths across the country. Since then, according to provincial statistics, hundreds more have died.
Health Canada has yet to side any special funding to tackle the country's opioid crisis.
Mexico — which has seen a rise the cultivation of opium poppies used to make heroin by drug gangs — the U.S., and Canada are set to unveil a plan to address the issue, as well as heroin use across the continent at their highly anticipated 'Three Amigos' summit in Ottawa tomorrow, a Mexican official told Reuters earlier this month.
"This isn't just about destroying (plantations), it's about finding solutions for people forced to cultivate poppies, and there will be an important announcement in this context at the summit on a new cooperation plan between the three countries to deal with problems that obviously concerns us all," said Mexico's deputy foreign minister in charge of North America, Paulo Carreno.
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