CHARLESTON, West Virginia -- With his eye on multiple conflicts across the globe, President Obama traveled to the capital of West Virginia on Wednesday afternoon (Oct. 21) to talk about a different kind of war: the battle against addiction.
"This crisis is taking lives," said Obama at the beginning of an hour-long community conversation about the impact of prescription drug abuse in West Virginia and across the nation. "It's destroying families, shattering lives across the country ... white, black, Hispanic, young, old, rich, poor, urban, suburban ... One of the problems is too many families suffer in silence."
Speaking at the East End Family Resource Center to a packed audience of local dignitaries, community members and parents of addicted teens, Obama talked about how his administration will fight prescription drug abuse and help families struggling with the stigma of addiction.
"One of my goals when I came into office was to restore a sense of balance when it came to drugs, illegal and legal," he said, suggesting that the War on Drugs went heavy on the supply side, but not as hard on the prevention and treatment tracks. "For a long time, treatment was a second-class citizen to interdiction and arrest."
But, in one of the rare bipartisan efforts during his administration, Obama said both Democrats and Republicans are beginning to see that looking tough on drugs and investing $20,000 a year to incarcerate young people was not as important as investing a few thousand on the front end to avoid locking that person up in the first place.
Part of Wednesday's event was the announcement that the administration has asked for $133 million for enhanced treatment and prevention programs in their current budget, part of which will be earmarked to build, fund and support more treatment centers. The White House has also issued a memorandum to the federal government to require federal prescribers to take a course on safe prescribing of opioids and making sure that access to treatment programs is as easy as possible for those who need it.
Obama also addressed the increasingly real problem of heroin abuse, which has seen a spike in over the past decade as addicts unable to get their legal prescription opioid fix often turn to cheaper street drugs that provide a similar opioid high.
A President, But Also A Dad
After his brief remarks, Obama took a seat on the stage and leaned forward in concentration as a father in the crowd told the harrowing story of his teenage daughter's near-fatal overdose. The girl, a student at the school that was formerly housed in the same building as the event, was found with a needle in her arm and had her life saved by local police who performed CPR and provided a life-saving shot of a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose.
"Malia and Sasha are wonderful girls, but they're teenagers," Obama said by way of suggesting that teens "do ... things" and make choices that their parents don't always approve of. "I did some ... stuff and I never asked about it. There but for the grace of God. That's what we all have to remember."
Drugs Kills More People Than Car Crashes
According to the CDC, 44 people die every day from prescription opioid overdoses, with most deaths between 1999-2013 affecting people between the ages of 25-54. In fact, in 2013, drug overdoses were the leading cause of injury death, causing more fatalities for people age 25 to 64 than car crashes.
The setting for the event was fitting, since West Virginia has the highest rate of drug overdose fatalities in the nation at almost 34 deaths per 100,000 people, or more than twice the national average (13 per 100,000). Over the past five years, nearly 2,900 West Virginians have overdosed on prescription painkillers or heroin.
The national rate for prescription overdose deaths as more than doubled from 2001 to 2013, with the deaths from opioid-based painkillers rose three-fold over the same period, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. The rate of heroin-related deaths has climbed fivefold in that same timeframe.
Finding Hope On The Other Side And Keeping Drugs Out Of Teens' Hands
One of the day's most powerful speakers was 29-year-old Jordan Coughlen. A former opioid user with 22 months in recovery and the founder of the first Young People in Recovery chapter in West Virginia, Coughlen introduced the president by telling his story of addiction and recovery. And, even an hour after Air Force One had whisked Obama away, Jordan was still in a dream state about his unbelievable day and his journey from overdose and desperation to helping others find their way.
"What got me to where I am today is a lot of loving, understanding, patient, compassionate people," he told MTV News about the long, painful march from his first taste of prescription opioids at 16 -- which he traded for two CDs -- until today. "I didn't have just one stint in treatment, I didn't have just one go at this, but I had people who stood by me, who cared... and what they imparted to me that entire time was not to give up on myself."
MTV News also spoke to Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. She reiterated the president's point about young people who experiment with pills they find in their parent's medicine cabinets. "The first thing is making sure those kids understand the journey that those pills will lead to," she said.
"I think many people don't understand what the addiction will lead to and what that will mean in terms of their lives."
It definitely sounded like the administration will do all it can to help Americans fighting addiction. But Obama seemed most touched by the parents who spoke about the damage drugs had done to their families.
"One of my favorite sayings I ever heard about addicted children is it's like having your heart walking around outside of your body," the president said. "All you care about is making sure they're okay. But they're so vulnerable... There's no 'us and them.' This is all about us in every community, every school, every neighborhood and it could be your child."