Ashton Marra Published

President Obama Announces New Federal Drug Policies During Charleston Visit

President Barack Obama

The nation’s substance abuse epidemic is taking center stage after President Obama announced new federal policies to combat the issue Wednesday. The president announced those changes during a trip to Charleston.

Obama held a forum at the Roosevelt Community Center on the city’s East End that included a panel of both federal and local leaders.

“I didn’t grow up with a desire to use drugs. I didn’t even know what they were until I heard kids in high school talking about them, but when I heard my friend broke his toe and wasn’t taking his prescription, curiosity took over,” Jordan Coughlen told the crowd gathered at the forum.

Barack Obama Drug Panel

Credit Ashton Marra

Coughlen described himself as an addict in long term recovery. After years of struggling with an addiction to opioids, Coughlen accidentally overdosed and spent five days in a coma.

“The only reason I am here today is because treatment is effective and recovery does happen,” he said.

Now, Coughlen works at a recovery center in Wheeling helping others in his community that struggle with the disease to overcome it. After introducing the president Wednesday, Obama thanked Coughlen for sharing his story and called him living proof that treatment does work.

The President’s trip to the state coincided with an announcement of changes in federal substance abuse treatment policies, policies designed to get a hold on an epidemic that’s quickly spreading across the nation.

“More Americans now die every year from drug overdoses than they do from motor vehicle crashes. More than they do from car crashes,” he said. “The majority of those overdoses involve legal prescription drugs.”

Since 1999, sales of prescription painkillers in the country have increased by 300 percent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says in 2012, there were enough painkillers sold to give every American adult their own bottle of pills, and the increase in sales has corresponded with increased numbers of overdose deaths.

That’s why President Obama says he’s working on the issue now, hoping to shed some light on the substance abuse epidemic.

It’s no coincidence the President chose to announce his policy changes in West Virginia, the state with the highest overdose rate in the nation. Thirty-four of every 100,000 West Virginians die from overdoses each year, nearly three times the national average.

The Obama administration’s new policies are aimed at reducing those numbers and helping addicts gain access to the treatment they need to overcome the disease.

Barack Obama Drug Panel

Credit Ashton Marra / WV Public Broadcasting
WV Public Broadcasting

The first policy deals with prescriber training- teaching medical professionals how to appropriately deal with a patient’s pain while still providing them with the treatment they need.  

“I talk to many physicians who talk about the fact that they receive little to no training on safe and effective opioid prescribing,” Director of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, “and so what we want to make sure is that physicians and other prescribers feel comfortable not only prescribing these, but in essence not prescribing them or monitoring people along the way.”

Aside from funneling resources into proper training, the President is also working to expand access to medication assisted treatment options. Those are programs that use methadone, suboxone and newly approved vivitrol combined with counseling to wean an addict off of a drug.

West Virginia has seen limited success using these types of treatments through the state’s drug court programs, but the President wants to put funds toward training more prescribers to use the method.

Obama has also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to locate barriers in the nation’s healthcare system that would prevent expanded access and come up with actionable plans to start breaking down those barriers.

The policies are meant to bring about a change, Obama said, a change not just in the number of people abusing drugs, but also in the culture of treating addiction.

“When people loosely throw around words like junkie, nobody wants to be labeled in that way,” he said, “and part of our goal here today is to replace those words with words like father or daughter or son or friend cause then you understand there’s a human element behind this.

“This could happen to any of us, in any of our families. We can’t fight this epidemic without eliminating stigma.”