WASHINGTON — Heroin and other opiate addiction is now claiming more lives in many communities than violent crime and car crashes, say America's top law enforcement officials who gathered here Wednesday to discuss the increasing devastation caused by the drug.
From Burlington, Vt., and New York to Philadelphia and Knoxville, local and federal officials said the surge, especially in heroin's availability and purity, is having stunningly lethal consequences. It's also cheaper than prescription opiods, costing from about $4 a bag in some places to $20 in others, making it an attractive drug of choice.
In New York City, the 730 drug overdose fatalities in 2012 — with half of those estimated to be related to heroin and prescription opiates — were nearly double the number of homicides.
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said overdose deaths, driven by the same combination of heroin and opiate abuse, outnumbered homicides last year by 52 to 19.
Separately, a yet-to-be released National Drug Threat Assessment rated heroin as the greatest drug risk, second only to the persistent abuse of methamphetamine.
Between 2009 and 2013, according to the assessment produced by the government's National Drug Intelligence Center, heroin seizures increased 87%. The average size of those seizures, meanwhile, increased 81% during the same time.
"The consciousness of the nation has not really focused on the problem,'' Attorney General Eric Holder told the conference of more than 200 officials organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based think tank.
"People saw this more as a state and local problem. …This is truly a national problem. Standing by itself, the heroin problem is worthy of our national attention.''
Holder's comments came just a month after he urged police and other first responders to carry the drug naloxone, more commonly known as narcan, that helps resuscitate victims from potentially deadly overdoses.
The attorney general re-asserted that guidance Wednesday as a potentially life-saving tool for police to consider when responding to overdose calls.
"This kind of sneaked up on us,'' Holder said, referring to heroin's resurgence after its former popularity in the '50s and '60s.
Holder was joined Wednesday by FBI Director James Comey, Drug Enforcement Administration Chief Michele Leonhart and Michael Botticelli, the acting director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, in the first national summit of its kind on the issue.
"Every place I've visited, I've heard about heroin,'' Comey told the group, referring to recent visits to 25 FBI field divisions during his first seven months on the job. "It's an everywhere, everyplace kind of thing. A place we have to make a tackle is on this problem.''
Much of the discussion, however, was generated by small-town police officials with troubling accounts of how their communities have been inundated with the highly addictive drug.
Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling said it is no longer unusual to find 10,000 bags per heroin seizure.
Police officials from Rutland, Vt., and the Massachusetts communities of Taunton and Fall River described similar problems where non-fatal and fatal overdoses are the norm.
"It's penetrating our entire society,'' Taunton Police Chief Edward Walsh said. "It's everywhere in our community.''