President Barack Obama called for more funding and a fresh approach to help people addicted to heroin and prescription drugs Tuesday, seeking to shine a light on an increasingly deadly epidemic.
"The public doesn't fully appreciate... the scope of the problem," Obama told his Atlanta audience, where the 5th annual National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit was held.
The outgoing U.S. president pointed out that opioids kill more people in the United States than traffic accidents, comparing the issue in importance to that of fighting Islamic State militants.
He said efforts to fight the epidemic were grossly underfunded, particularly in rural areas. Furtherore, he criticized the lack of understanding in U.S. society toward drug addiction and abuse.
"For too long we have viewed the problem of drug abuse generally in our society through the lens of the criminal justice system," he said.
In his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," Obama wrote about his experience earlier in life of using marijuana and cocaine, sparking fierce debate and controversy in the U.S.
On Tuesday, Obama admitted he was lucky that he hadn't suffered from addiction beyond his use of cigarettes, pressing for the issue to be framed as a medical problem rather than a legal one.
Heroin use in the U.S. has increased by over 150 percent in the past few years, largely due to greater supplies of the drug at increasingly cheaper prices. Overdoses have also risen by more than 400 percent since 2002, U.S. health officials have announced.
As the epidemic of heroin use mostly affects whites, drug addiction has become an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, with unprecedented calls to review drug policies growing by the day.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, in the past decade nearly 90 percent of those who tried heroin for the first time were white.
The changing mood comes in stark contrast to the epidemic of crack cocaine based in poor, Black, urban areas, which was characterized by zero tolerance and unforgiving prison sentences.
“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, back in October 2015.
“They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”