Obama drug strategy aims to change how Americans see drug abuse

President Obama's annual drug control strategy, released Wednesday, targets the rise of heroin but also seeks to portray drug abuse as a disease, not a moral failure.

Eric Reed/AP/File
Acting Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli speaks during the Second Annual Justice For Vets Veterans Treatment Court Conference in Anaheim, Calif., in May. He unveiled the president's drug policy Wednesday.

When Michael Botticelli, President Obama’s acting “drug czar,” unveiled the administration’s annual drug control strategy on Wednesday morning, he emphasized that “we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.”

And he introduced the document in very personal terms. “I’m also a person in long-term recovery from substance-abuse disorders,” said Mr. Botticelli, the acting director of national drug control policy. “I’m speaking about my recovery because for too long the stigma associated with the disease of addiction has quieted too many of our fellow Americans who have struggled with this disease.”

The 98-page strategy unveiled Wednesday follows the template of Obama’s previous drug policy statements, but it also raises the alarm on the nation’s growing middle-class problem of opioid addictions, as heroin and painkillers become a suburban and middle-America scourge.

Indeed, drug overdoses are poised to surpass traffic accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in 2014, according to the American College of Physicians . In 2011, about 110 Americans died each day from a drug overdose.

“As one of the millions of Americans in recovery myself, I can’t overstate the importance of this administration's efforts to reform drug policy in a way that finally recognizes that substance abuse is a public health issue and not just a criminal justice issue,” Botticelli said.

According to the policy he unveiled, a simplistic enforcement-focused “war on drugs” is “counterproductive, inefficient, and costly.”

The statement does not adjust the administration’s stance on marijuana, however, and pot remains classified as a Schedule I drug, considered by the government as among the most dangerous and addicting. Marijuana remains a “serious challenge” to the nation’s health, the statement said, along with Schedule I opioids like heroin.

“Among those challenges are the declining perceptions of harm – and associated increases in use – of marijuana among young people,” the policy statement notes. “These challenges have gained prominence with the passage of state ballot initiatives in 2012 legalizing marijuana in the states of Colorado and Washington.”

Last year, the administration outlined eight priorities for officials enforcing the federal ban on marijuana, including preventing its distribution to minors and battling criminal enterprises. But it otherwise will take a hands-off approach as states continue to decriminalize the drug.

But Botticelli personal experiences, as well as his visit to a treatment facility in Roanoke, Va., underscored the administration’s continued focus on addiction as a disease, especially as heroin use explodes around the country.

There’s been a "tremendous escalation" of heroin use in Roanoke, including among teenagers, said Gail Burress, director of adult clinical services at Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, where Wednesday’s news conference was held. "It's risk-taking at a new level," she said, according to the Associated Press.

Nationwide, heroin use has nearly doubled in the past five years, surging to nearly 670,000 users in 2012 from 373,000 in 2007, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

As the administration works with state and local officials to combat the country’s growing opioid problem, it is urging Americans to remove the stigma connoted by the terms “addict” and “drug abuser,” which often prevent people from seeking help. It should be considered a “substance use disorder,” the administration said.

“For far too long, having a substance abuse disorder was seen as a moral failure, a matter of weakness, rather than recognized as the disease,” Botticelli said.

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