Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday called the increase in heroin-related deaths an "urgent and growing public health crisis" and said first responders should carry with them a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
The video message posted on the Justice Department's website reflects the federal government's concern about the growing prevalence of heroin and prescription painkillers' abuse.
The number of overdose deaths involving heroin increased by 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and several state governors have recently drawn attention to the impact of heroin abuse in their communities.
"Addiction to heroin and other opiates, including certain prescription pain-killers, is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life -- and all too often, with deadly results," Holder said in the message.
The attorney general's public support for an antidote that could be used to rescue overdosing drug users mirrors the position of the White House drug policy office, which has also urged all first responders to have the medication on hand. At least 17 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 some states to increase access to it.
Advocates say Narcan, which comes in a spray and injectable form, has the potential to save many lives if administered within a certain window. But critics fear that making the antidote too accessible could encourage drug use.
Holder said law enforcement is combatting the overdose problem, including by cutting off the supply chain that illicitly furnishes prescription painkillers to drug addicts. But he said more work is needed to prevent and treat drug addiction.
"Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment. The Justice Department is committed to both," he said.
Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates against what it sees as "the excesses" of the war on drugs, said in addition to promoting broader access to Narcan, the Justice Department should also back better education about heroin abuse and promote "Good Samaritan" laws that protect from prosecution individuals who call police to report an overdose.
The organization said in a statement that it believes the antidote should be made available to anyone who might be in a position to witness an overdose, such as a friend or relative of an addict.