Feds shift focus to heroin trafficking

Feds shift focus to heroin trafficking
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The Obama administration is stepping up its efforts to crack down on the heroin trade amid an alarming drug abuse epidemic in the U.S., a top official told lawmakers on Thursday.

"We have a heroin crisis," William R. Brownfield, the assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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Brownfield said that the focus had shifted from cocaine to heroin trafficking as cocaine use plummets and heroin use skyrockets in the United States. 

The CDC recently reported that American heroin use per capita has doubled since 2002 and the number of heroin-related deaths has increased 286 percent.

Brownfield said Mexico is a major hub for heroin in the Western Hemisphere and a major problem area for American drug enforcement. Ninety percent of heroin in America is produced in Mexico, according to a figure he provided.

“We have to confront the reality that the entire problem is centered there,” he added.

Mexico’s geographic location makes it essential to drug trafficking, he said, with heroin from that country and further south moving into the U.S.

The hearing is part of an effort in Washington to fight a spike in the abuse of heroin and powerful prescription painkillers.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to tackle opioid abuse in March, followed by a series of measures in the House in May.

The Obama administration has also ramped up its response, but critics say more needs to be done.

Brownfield on Thursday also singled out fentanyl, a powerful opiate available by prescription, as being a particular problem, because it is easier to distribute than heroin due to its potency. He said the drug is often produced by loosely regulated Chinese pharmaceutical companies and moved into the U.S. from Mexico.

The drug was responsible for musician Prince's fatal overdose earlier this year, according to a medical report.

Brownfield called for systematically destroying tons of thousands of acres used for heroin production in Mexico.

And while he applauded the cooperation between the two countries, he told lawmakers that corruption remains a pressing issue in both the U.S. and Mexico.

“Without corrupted officials, [trafficking] will not succeed,” he said.