A dramatic increase in heroin-related deaths nationwide has caught the attention of the Obama administration, which is joining state and local governments nationwide in trying to combat the problem.
Heroin, a highly addictive drug, has been relatively cheap and easy to find for generations. But the Justice Department blames a 45 percent spike in heroin overdose deaths between 2006 and 2010 on people who first abused prescription opioids -- drugs based on opium, from which heroin is derived.
"When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin," Attorney General Eric Holder said in calling the increase an "urgent public health crisis."
Holder laid out a mix of enforcement and treatment efforts, while states, cities and counties have been doling out tens of millions of dollars in grants for prevention, treatment and enforcement programs.
The Justice Department also is supporting more than 2,600 specialty courts nationwide that have connected more than 120,000 people convicted of drug-related offenses with the services they need to kick their drug habits.
In Congress, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., has introduced a bill to train drug prescribers and provide grants for states to educate residents on the dangers of opiate and prescription drug abuse. The bill also calls for creation of a national registry to track opiate deaths.
States are enacting "good Samaritan" laws that grant immunity from prosecution for those helping someone who overdoses.
Heroin was involved in 3,038 overdose deaths in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died in February from an apparent accidental overdose of a toxic mix of heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and benzodiazepines.
Hoffman, 46, often talked about overcoming a drug addiction in his early 20s but said he had been sober for more than 20 years. But last year he checked himself into rehab for what was described as a problem with prescription painkillers — an addiction believed to have led to his relapse.
With prescription pain killers a gateway drug for heroin, Holder vowed that the Drug Enforcement Agency, with state and local agencies, will amp up efforts to combat "all levels" of the drug supply chain to prevent pharmaceuticals from getting into the hands of non-medical users. This includes targeting "pill mills" — doctor's offices or medical clinics where licensed doctors sell prescription drugs under the table — and pharmacists who illegally dispense prescriptions.
Holder also is urging first responders to carry the drug naloxone, which restores breathing to someone in the throes of a heroin or opioid overdose. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow naloxone -- commonly known by the brand name Narcan -- to be distributed to the public, and bills are pending in other states to increase its access.
Some critics fear that making the antidote too accessible could encourage drug use and give heroin users a false sense of security.
But the Justice Department says the push to get the antidote into more hands has helped more than 10,000 overdose victims since 2001.
"We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem," said Gil Kerlikowske, former director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Drug addiction is a disease of the brain — a disease that can be prevented, treated and from which one can recover."