President Barack Obama will seek to draw attention to the growing U.S. heroin problem on Wednesday on a trip to West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest drug overdose death rate.
The president’s visit to the state, which is politically conservative but tends to elect Republicans and Democrats, will be his first in more than five years. In that time, heroin abuse has worsened.
Obama will visit Charleston, the state capital. In nearby Huntington, seen as West Virginia’s heroin hub, police reported seizing 5.5 kilograms of heroin in 2013, up from 395 grams in 2010.
Law enforcement and healthcare workers in Charleston and Huntington say that unemployment, a high injury rate among coal workers and poor access to drug abuse treatment programs have made the state ground-zero of a national heroin problem.
Obama is expected to announce plans for federal agencies to ensure that training is provided for prescribers of opiate-based painkillers, which are often a gateway to heroin.
An estimated 45 percent of U.S. heroin users also are addicted to prescription painkillers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Obama will direct the CDC to invest $8.5 million in opiate addiction prevention and also will ask for a federal review of barriers to medication and treatment for opiate addiction.
Dr. Dan Foster, a retired surgeon and former West Virginia legislator, said more funding is needed. He is working to open a clinic for heroin addicts in Charleston, but has far been stymied by a lack of funding.
In Huntington, deputy fire department chief Jan Rader said she noticed a spike in heroin deaths around 2011. It was around that time that Florida began to shut down the so-called pill mills where West Virginia suppliers had been traveling to buy opiate-based prescription drugs for resale at home.
Rader said Huntington has had success in reaching heroin addicts by providing clean needles and counseling. “We own our problem, and we’re working diligently to fix it. But we need help desperately as far as financial support,” Rader said.
Both Foster and Rader will attend a community discussion that Obama will host at East End Family Resource Center on Wednesday. Foster said he agrees with Obama’s approach of treating, rather than incarcerating, addicts.
“We have taken on a culture of looking at this more as a disease rather than a moral failing,” Foster said.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Paul Simao)