Drug poisoning deaths reached a record level in 2015, outpacing suicide, homicide, car crashes, and firearms deaths, according to a new report from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment, released by the DEA earlier this week, is a "comprehensive strategic assessment of the threats posed to our communities by transnational criminal organizations and the illicit drugs they distribute throughout the United States." It collects data from state and local law enforcement and public health services to build a picture of the state of America’s struggles with drug crime.
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"The information in the report represents data gathered over the past year, but of critical importance is the real time information we get every day from our partners. It has never been a more important time to use all the tools at our disposal to fight this epidemic, and we must remain steadfast in our mission to combat all dangerous drugs of abuse," said Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson.
Approximately 140 people died from drug poisoning every day in 2015 (the most recent year for which data are available) the report found, the highest recorded rate ever. Drug poisoning deaths remain the leading cause of injury death in the United States, having consistently outpaced other causes of injury death since 2011.
The major driver of these deaths is opioids, especially prescription opioids. Since 2001, prescription opioids have been the leading cause of drug deaths, outpacing heroin and cocaine combined; in 2015, prescription opioids made for 63 percent of drug deaths.
A recent study determined that the rate of opioid abuse plateaued in America in 2003, but still remains high—approximately 13 percent of Americans over age 12 admitted to abusing opioids at some point in their lives. There are about 91 opioid overdose deaths a day.
Heroin and fentanyl have also expanded, both in market share and lethality. "The United States has seen substantial increases in heroin availability in the last seven to 10 years," the report notes. Heroin was responsible for almost 13,000 deaths in 2015.
"This report underscores the scope and magnitude of the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States," Patterson said.
While opioids, prescription and otherwise, remain the most significant cause of drug death, other drugs pose significant challenges. Nearly thirty percent of responding law enforcement agencies identified methamphetamine as the most significant drug threat in their area, concentrated in the midwest and western United States. Methamphetamine usage declined throughout the late 2000s, but picked up sharply after 2011. Availability is increasing, as Mexican drug gangs move large quantities across the border.
Cocaine and marijuana were also subjects of the report. Cocaine availability has increased, and is likely to continue to increase in the next several years. The report also documents the rise in so-called "new psychoactive substances," including synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones.
The report further addresses the threat of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), which have been a major focus of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Mexican TCOs, the report notes, "maintain the greatest drug trafficking influence in the United States, with continued signs of growth and expansion." Other Latin American TCOs are based primarily in Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
Mexican TCOs, like the Sinaloa cartel, move drugs into the United States primarily through border checkpoints using concealed compartments in vehicles or tractor trailers. Through these methods, Mexican TCOs bring "significant quantities of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and possibly fentanyl into the United States annually."
Asian TCOs also pose a threat, although their activities are primarily focused on the east and west coast. Asian TCOs tend to traffic MDMA and marijuana, and "partner with and recruit Asian Americans, blending into existing immigrant communities, to exploit U.S. drug markets." Asian drug trafficking recently drew the attention of the Justice Department as it announced its first-ever indictment of Chinese nationals for operating fentanyl-distributing drug rings.
One transnational gang, MS-13, has been a particular rhetorical target for Sessions. On Monday, he promised that "we will use whatever laws we have to get MS-13 off of our streets," announcing new efforts to target the gang and other transnational drug smugglers.
Also on Monday, responding to the surge in opioid-related deaths, President Donald Trump reiterated his promise to designate the opioid crisis as a national emergency.