DEA seeks to raise awareness about growing heroin problem

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Heroin poses a serious threat in the U.S., causing an increasing number of overdose deaths, according to data released Monday by the Drug Enforcement Agency.

A large stack of data in the newly released National Heroin Threat Assessment shows new trends that federal drug agents are seeing. As a result, DEA agents hope to increase awareness about the heroin problem.

"We have more people die from drug overdose deaths than automobile accidents," said Dennis Wichern, Chicago DEA special agent in charge.

The astounding statistics were collected from the last few years and shows that more than 10,000 Americans died from heroin-related overdoses in 2014 -- more than triple compared to 2010. The drug is now available in larger quantities and is being used by more people.

"Two people every day die in Chicagoland and Cook County from a drug overdose, either from heroin or some other drug," Wichern said. "In the collar counties, approximately one person dies every three days from either a heroin or an opioid overdose," Wichern said.

In fact, he says when it come heroin and opioid, the Chicago region had the second-highest user problem in the country in 2012. Part of the federal government's renewed strategy is identifying the links between prescription drug addiction and heroin use.

"It starts with the painkiller and the belief that this pill, made by a pharmaceutical company, is better and safer and less addictive," Wichern said. "Once you're addicted, you can no longer afford the cost of it because the heroin, eventually, is cheaper than that prescription painkiller."

For Chicago agents, heroin is now their No. 1 priority. Wichern said he wants everyone, especially parents, to know that heroin has one of the highest addiction rates.

"One out of five, when the peer pressure hits, tries it. And then that person who tries it, one out of four is immediately addicted. That's how scary this is," Wichern said.

The Northeast and Midwest were two regions with the highest threat, according to the National Heroin Threat Assessment.

All 94 U.S. Attorney's Offices will be getting a memo from the U.S. Justice Department urging prosecutors to more readily share information across state lines to identify traffickers and trafficking routes more quickly.
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