WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has been crusading for more lenient treatment for nonviolent drug offenders, making it a top priority before he is expected to leave office this year.
Recently, however, he has been forced to confront an epidemic of deaths from heroin and prescription drug abuse, one that his opponents have cited as a reason for not loosening drug sentences.
In prepared remarks for a speech Wednesday, Holder cited the "stunning rise in heroin and prescription opiate overdose deaths" and vowed the Justice Department was committed to "rigorous enforcement" of the drug laws and "robust treatment" of drug addicts.
In response to a question about the seeming lack of urgency nationally on the heroin problem, Holder conceded "that this kind of sneaked up on us," according to a recording of his speech. He said heroin had been thought of as mostly a regional problem until recently, when statistics proved that it was national in scope.
"What I have tried to do is use this office to talk about the issue, to bring attention to it, to talk about it in terms of our budget," he said.
Holder needs to persuade not only outside critics but some of his own employees that he can be tough on drug crime.
An organization representing a third of the assistant U.S. attorneys has opposed legislation backed by Holder to slash mandatory minimum drug sentences. And members of the Drug Enforcement Administration, from rank-and-file agents to Administrator Michele Leonhart, have been critical of what they see as Holder's and President Obama's lenient policies toward marijuana use.
To get across his message, Holder used a videotaped address to the department this month and the speech Wednesday to a conference held by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington nonprofit that studies issues confronted by police.
Holder cited statistics to back up his assertion that the department had been effective, saying that the DEA had opened 4,500 investigations related to heroin since 2011 and that the amount of heroin seized along the Southwest border had increased by more than 320% between 2008 and 2013.
Experts say a nationwide crackdown on abuse of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, has led to a sharp increase in the use of heroin, which is flooding into the country from Mexico and Colombia and is now substantially cheaper and more potent than opiate-containing pills.
Prescription drug abuse is still the greater killer, leading to 16,000 deaths in this country a year, but heroin use shot up nearly 80% between 2007 and 2012, according to government statistics.