March 10 (Bloomberg) -- The top U.S. prosecutor today urged authorities to focus their attention on “the most dangerous types of drugs,” particularly heroin and prescription painkillers, just weeks after the government took steps to legitimize the country’s marijuana industry.
Attorney General Eric Holder joined other law enforcement and public health officials who have expressed alarm about the rise in heroin addiction. The dangers of the drug were highlighted last month by the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from a poisonous mix of narcotics, including heroin.
In a video posted on the Justice Department’s website, Holder drew a distinction between heroin and other drugs that may not be so deadly.
“When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs,” he said. “And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin.”
He cited federal statistics that showed heroin overdose deaths increased 45 percent from 2006 to 2010, when the drug was blamed for killing 3,038 people. Heroin use rose 79 percent from 2007 through 2012, with 669,000 people reporting they had tried the drug, according to a federal survey released last year.
Authorities attribute the increase in heroin use to the ready and cheap supply of the narcotic, which has coincided with a crackdown on the sale of prescription painkillers that has made them more costly and harder to find.
Holder said federal authorities were aggressively investigating dealers of prescription painkillers and heroin. The amount of heroin seized along the country’s Southwest border with Mexico surged 320 percent from 2008 to 2013, he said. The Justice Department is also enlisting “doctors, educators, community leaders and police officials” to boost treatment and prevention programs, he said.
Holder didn’t mention marijuana in the web video. Still, he was clearly drawing a distinction in how federal and local authorities should tackle different types of drugs. U.S. government officials have been developing rules for how to enforce federal pot statutes, under which the drug remains illegal even as states have sought to legalize it for recreational and medicinal use.
The Justice Department didn’t seek to block laws passed in 2012 in Colorado or Washington State that legalized the recreational use of pot. And the deputy attorney general, James Cole, has issued memos in recent months that instruct federal prosecutors to focus their attention on eight priority areas and to leave the other marijuana-related violations to state and local governments. Those priority areas include fighting marijuana distribution to minors and its transportation across state lines.
On Feb. 15, the Treasury Department issued guidelines that allow U.S. banks to offer services to marijuana-related businesses in states where pot sales are legal for medical or recreational purposes. Officials said the guidelines would reduce the dangers faced by all-cash pot businesses.
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