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Obama visits West Virginia to detail new efforts to fight opiate drug abuse

"What are we doing here? Why is it we are willing to invest $20,000 a year incarcerating a young person, when we might have spent a few thousand dollars on the front end to avoid them going to prison in the first place?" Obama asked at the community forum Wednesday.

By Doug G. Ware
Obama visits West Virginia to detail new efforts to fight opiate drug abuse
President Barack Obama attends a community forum in Charleston, W. Va., Wednesday to outline new efforts to fight opiate drug abuse -- an "epidemic," officials say, that causes more than 100 Americans to die from drug overdoses daily. Obama's new efforts include focusing on prescriber training and greater treatment access. Photo by the White House / YouTube

CHARLESTON, W.Va., Oct. 21 (UPI) -- President Obama traveled to West Virginia Wednesday to announce new federal and state government efforts designed to fight opiate drug abuse from a new angle.

Obama traveled to Charleston Wednesday afternoon, where he participated in a community forum.

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"When I came into office I started studying this issue of what's called opioids. And I was stunned by the statistics," Obama said. "More Americans die every year from drug overdoses than they do from motor vehicle crashes."

"The majority of those overdoses involve legal prescription drugs ... I don't have to tell you this, this is a terrible toll," he added, noting that more than 16,000 Americans died of prescription pain medication overdoses in 2013 alone.

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Obama issued a memorandum to various government departments and agencies to direct two steps intended to fight the prescription painkiller and heroin problem -- an issue that has contributed to a long and troubled history for Americans, and particularly West Virginians.

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"West Virginia understands this better than anybody," Obama said, noting that the state is home to the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States.

One concern was voiced by David Grubb, a West Virginia resident who told the story of his daughter's battle with heroin addiction, and her near fatal overdose last year. Grubb, whose daughter is now rehabilitating in Michigan, asked Obama why more rehabilitation options aren't available closer to home.

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"You're right. If you are a parent ... you can relate," Obama answered. "[Having children] is like having your heart walking around outside your body. All you care about is making sure they are okay. But they are so vulnerable ... this is happening in families everywhere with great parents who love their kids."

"The first thing to do is to understand that this is an American problem that cuts across groups and political affiliations," he added. "We have ramped up [fighting the war against drugs] aggressively under my administration.

"If there is somebody out there who's systematically making millions or hundreds of millions of dollars off the destruction of our kids, we are going to go after them."

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Obama noted that the goal of his and previous administrations has, for a long time, been focused on targeting the supply of drugs -- a focus that he said has led the government to under-invest in the demand and treatment end, which the new efforts will better address.

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"This is a real opportunity. It's an important moment for us," he said. "Because if we can start thinking intelligently about treatment on the opioids and prescription drug side, then people start making the connection."

"We are putting an end to the old politics on this. Democrats and Republicans were most responsible for wanting to look tough on the War on Drugs, and ramping up incarceration," Obama said. "Now both, at the same time, are realizing, 'You know what? What are we doing here?' Why is it we are willing to invest $20,000 a year incarcerating a young person, when we might have spent a few thousand dollars on the front end to avoid them going to prison in the first place.

"And that mindset means that resources, hopefully, will start channeling in a new direction."

Also present at Wednesday's community forum were Michael Botticelli, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, a native of West Virginia.

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