WASHINGTON Heroin use has been exploding in the United States in recent years and on Wednesday federal officials said that for the first time it was viewed as posing the greatest U.S. drug threat.
In an annual assessment by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, heroin was ranked the No. 1 problem by the largest portion of local and state law enforcement agency authorities taking part, said DEA head Chuck Rosenberg.
Methamphetamine was ranked the top drug threat in 2014, and controlled prescription drugs was top in 2013, according to the DEA.
Heroin use in the United States has skyrocketed in recent years and there was 51 percent increase in users between 2013 and 2014. Though most common in the Northeast, heroin use in the Pacific and Great Lakes regions has tripled since 2007, the DEA said.
Rosenberg also added his support to the theory that increased scrutiny of police behavior since violent citizen-police confrontations in cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, has made law enforcement officers less effective at cracking down on violent crime.
That theory, known as the "Ferguson effect," has recently been advanced by FBI Director James Comey, whom Rosenberg served as chief of staff until joining the DEA in May. Rosenberg said he had heard from many law enforcement leaders that Comey was "spot on."
"My sense is that there is more trepidation, and maybe some of that's good, maybe some degree of trepidation, or reflection, or pause, is a good thing," he told reporters. But he added that the increased scrutiny on police behavior means some officers now face negative publicity even when they follow protocol.
Rosenberg also expressed opposition to the marijuana legalization movement in the country, and frustration with efforts to legalize the drug based on highlighting its medicinal properties.
"What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal, because it's not," he said, noting however that elements of the plant have promise for medicinal uses.
More than 20 states permit some form of medical marijuana. Pro-marijuana groups in six states hope to hold referendums next year on legalizing the drug for recreational use. In October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the state's first comprehensive medical marijuana regulations.
(Reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Frances Kerry)