Obama targets nation's heroin problem in West Virginia trip

By Julia Edwards
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U.S. President Barack Obama listens as Carey Dixon speaks about a loved one who has struggled with drug addiction, as he hosts a community discussion during a visit to Charleston, West Virginia

U.S. President Barack Obama listens as Carey Dixon speaks about a loved one who has struggled with drug addiction, as he hosts a community discussion during a visit to Charleston, West Virginia October 21, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Julia Edwards

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama highlighted a growing U.S. heroin problem on a trip on Wednesday to West Virginia, which has been economically battered by a shrinking coal industry, and which has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country.

Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin traveled with Obama and warned that many listening to the president would blame the state's heroin problem on Obama's energy policy, which mandates a shift toward clean energy and away from coal.

Between 2012 and 2013, West Virginia lost 16 percent of coal jobs, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Anytime you have a loss of jobs, loss of income, loss of purpose, loss of family, you're going to have people turning to different things," Manchin told reporters aboard Air Force One. "And that's why you'll see people today that are very upset about that, that we have taken it on the chin."

Obama held a panel discussion in Charleston, the state capital, and said the heroin epidemic is not unique to West Virginia. "We want to make sure the whole country understands how urgent this problem is," he said.

Law enforcement and healthcare workers in Charleston and nearby Huntington, seen as seen as West Virginia's heroin hub, say 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.

In Huntington, police reported seizing 5.5 kg (12.1 pounds) of heroin in 2013, up from 395 grams (14 ounces) in 2010.

Obama announced 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 are also addicted to prescription painkillers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obama directed 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.

One Charleston father in the Charleston audience asked Obama why his heroin-addicted daughter had to travel to Michigan for treatment because there were no resources available for her at home.

Obama told the man that the tide is shifting on drug policy to emphasize treatment for addicts. He called on Congress to approve his $133 million budget request for treatment and prevention programs.


(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Paul Simao and Frances Kerry)