Obama unveils new federal initiative to combat America’s heroin crisis

The president traveled on Wednesday to West Virginia to detail his plan to take action on the opioid crisis that has ravaged communities across the US

Barack Obama has unveiled a new federal initiative to combat the opioid crisis that has ravaged communities across the United States, causing more annual deaths in some states than car accidents.

The president traveled on Wednesday to West Virginia, an epicenter of the nation’s opioid and heroin epidemic, to detail his plan to try to reverse some of the harrowing statistics that have recently created a sense of urgency around substance abuse. In 2013 alone, more than 37,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, and prescription painkillers accounted for 16,000 of those deaths.

“This crisis is taking lives, it’s destroying families, it’s shattering communities all across the country,” Obama said at a roundtable discussion with community members, members of law enforcement and healthcare officials. “And that’s the thing about substance abuse – it doesn’t discriminate.”

“It touches everybody, from celebrities to college students to soccer moms to inner-city kids – white, black, Hispanic, young, old, rich, poor, urban, suburban, men and women.”

Among the Obama administration’s proposals were to improve training among prescribers for opiate painkillers and to expand access to medication-assisted treatment. The president also emphasized the need for criminal justice reform, another key platform of Obama’s second-term agenda, namely with respect to pushing to treat non-violent drug offenders rather than imprison them.

“We should approach substance abuse as an opportunity to intervene, not incarcerate,” Obama said.

The event, attended by many individuals who have been directly affected by the epidemic, was packed with emotion and a sense of desperation among families struggling to access treatment for their loved ones.

Cary Dixon, a West Virginia woman who works with a support group for parents, joined the president on stage to share the toll of substance abuse on ordinary households. Her voice occasionally cracking, Dixon described an atmosphere in which vacations were almost always put on hold, time taken off from work, marriages and other children neglected, and phone calls that could bear the worst of news.

“For too long we’ve been silent because of the stigma of this disease and the shame that we feel,” she said. “I think that is holding us back, we need to open our voices so that people don’t feel ashamed. This is a disease, it is a sickness.”

Obama, too, spoke of the “shame and fear and stigma” that too often prevents families from accessing treatment and underscored the difference that could be made simply by changing some of the terminology associated with addiction. Part of his administration’s goal, he said, was to replace words like “junkie” with “father or daughter or son or friend or sister”.

“Then you understand there’s a human element behind this,” Obama noted.

The president chose West Virginia as his venue due to its own overwhelming, even if not unique, struggles with substance abuse. The state is home to the highest rate of overdose deaths – more than twice the nationwide average – with an estimated 88% of drug overdoses this year caused by opiate-related substances.

Obama’s memorandum would also task federal agencies that offer health insurance with reviewing any barriers under their health plans that bar patients from access to medication-assisted treatments for opioid abuse – and to address those restrictions should they be found.

An investigation by the Huffington Post published this year examined the treatment industry in Kentucky, another state crippled by the heroin epidemic, and discovered stiff opposition to medication-assisted models despite medical consensus in its favor, and evidence that an abstinence-based approach was contributing to the majority of fatal relapses.

The Obama administration has taken other steps to reverse the narrative against medication-assisted treatment, such as an announcement in February that stripped federal funding from drug courts which prevented MAT access to those suffering from substance abuse. The president also expressed his support on Wednesday for ensuring that first responders have access to naloxone, also known as Narcan, a drug used in overdoses to reverse the effects of opioids.

Obama’s healthcare law also expanded coverage for substance abuse disorders, although some West Virginia residents at the town hall expressed concerns over a lack of local treatment centers.

One man said the site of the meeting was a place he last visited when his daughter was in eighth grade. Describing her as a cheerleader who excelled in her schoolwork, the man recounted how her life was derailed by substance abuse. Following a near fatal overdose last month, he and his wife were forced to send her to a treatment center but could only locate one in Michigan, where she is now.

“If there aren’t facilities available, then the treatment coverage can be illusory … we have to close that gap,” he said.

Obama acknowledged the need for building and funding more treatment facilities locally, while also nodding to an increasingly bipartisan approach toward reforming drug and criminal justice policies.

The stories of parents visibly resonated with Obama, who is himself the father of two teenage daughters. Referencing Sasha and Malia Obama, the president grew emotional while sharing what he said was one of his favorite sayings about parenthood: “It’s like having your heart walking around outside your body.”

The feeling of helplessness that overcomes so many parents when realizing they can only do so much to protect their children, he added, extends to substance abuse and how it should be perceived.

“It could be your child,” Obama said. “This is all of us.”


Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Meet Carl Hart: parent, Columbia professor – and heroin user
In a startling new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, the Ivy League professor argues that the dangers of recreational drug use have been wildly overstated

Andrew Anthony

06, Feb, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
Synthetic opioid use booms worldwide amid Africa 'crisis', UN says
Deaths in the US are still rising due to fentanyl addiction, but report highlights alarming take-up of painkiller tramadol in Africa

Staff and agencies

26, Jun, 2019 @12:57 AM

Article image
The truth about the US ‘opioid crisis’ – prescriptions aren’t the problem | Marc Lewis
The overdose crisis is driven by illicit use of drugs – not those given on prescription for patients in need, says neuroscientist and author Marc Lewis

Marc Lewis

07, Nov, 2017 @12:04 PM

Article image
Heroin crisis: presidential candidates forced to confront issue on campaign trail
New Hampshire plays a pivotal role in the primaries, but with the state battling record overdose deaths, an epidemic is moving into national spotlight again

Sabrina Siddiqui in Manchester, New Hampshire

10, Oct, 2015 @12:30 PM

Article image
America's fatal addiction to prescription drugs | David Kloth

David Kloth: Misuse of legal medications kills more US citizens than die in car crashes. The cost in dollars, let alone lives, compels action

David Kloth

10, Jun, 2011 @7:30 PM

Article image
She was the town’s leading heroin dealer. She was 19 years old
In West Virginia, a young woman and a privileged physician lived very different lives. But they shared a crushing addiction

Chris McGreal in Petersburg, West Virginia

19, Jun, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
White House to commit $116m to heroin and opioid abuse epidemic
Obama administration will announce new measures centered on prevention and treatment, not crime-fighting, as part of wider rollback of ‘war on drugs’

Timothy Pratt in Atlanta

29, Mar, 2016 @12:33 PM

Article image
Heroin pilot program partners law enforcement with harm prevention
White House announces trial across 15 states to tackle ‘severe threat’ focusing on prevention, emergency treatment and rehabilitation

Joanna Walters in New York

17, Aug, 2015 @10:28 PM

Article image
US heroin use has increased almost fivefold in a decade, study shows
Researchers say increase is seen across all social groups, ages and sexes and highlight link between misuse of prescription opioids and heroin abuse

Nicola Davis

29, Mar, 2017 @3:00 PM

Article image
America’s opioid catastrophe has lessons for us all, about greed and racial division | Kenan Malik
Big pharma saw huge profits in medicalising the social stress of the white working class

Kenan Malik

01, Sep, 2019 @5:19 AM