From left, Dr. Leana Wen, Crystal Oertle, Justin Luke Riley, President Obama and Dr. Sanjay Gupta during the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.

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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta moderates a National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit with President Obama

Obama has recently announced several initiatives to expand addiction treatment and access

CNN  — 

Before an audience at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, President Barack Obama said he wasn’t sure what it was that tipped his life away from addiction. “I wasn’t always as responsible as I am today. In many ways I was lucky, because for whatever reason addiction didn’t get it’s claws on me … except cigarettes,” he said.

“Regardless how individuals get into theses situations. We don’t know everything. There may be genetic components. Addictions may be different for different people. What we do know is there are steps that can be taken to get through addiction and get to the other side, and that is under-resourced.”

President Obama and Dr. Sanjay Gupta during the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.

The President came to Atlanta on the heels of announcing several initiatives earlier in the day to expand addiction treatment and access. The efforts announced today included:

  • Providing $11 million dollars to states to expand medication-assisted treatment therapies like methadone and burenorphine, which administer drugs along with therapy to manage withdrawal and recovery
  • Upping the limit on the number of patients a doctor can treat with burenorphine from just 100 patients per doctor to 200 patients per doctor
  • Adding an additional $11 million to state efforts to use naloxone, the opioid reversal drug
  • Establishing a Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Task Force

Obama sat on a panel moderated by CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, to discuss the ravaging opioid epidemic across the country.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 Americans die every day by overdosing on opioids, a family of drugs that includes legal pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, along with illicit drugs such as heroin.

On the panel with the President was Dr. Leana Wen, health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, 35-year old Crystal Oertle of Shelby, Ohio, and 28-year old Justin Luke Riley, the president and CEO of Young People in Recovery. Oertle and Riley shared their personal journeys of recovery from opioid addiction.

Oertle was 20 years old when she started using Vicodin recreationally. She said it went from there to other prescription drugs, and when those drugs were no longer available she turned to heroin. She said she needed it just to function on a daily basis, and would even use while her children were at home. The mother of two finally quit a year ago. It wasn’t the first time, but she said this time it has stuck because she is in a medication-assisted treatment program that prescribes burenorphine along with counseling.

Riley first began using drugs when he was just 8 years old. “I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin,” he said, and so he turned to medicating himself with Benadryl. He eventually moved on to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and prescription pills. By the time he was 19, he was homeless and had gone through six other recovery programs. But, the seventh time worked, when someone looked him in the eye, and said “You can be a service to others.” Knowing he had something to contribute that was valuable instilled a sense of purpose in him. He has been in long term recovery since 2007.

The President said it would take hearing more stories like this to focus attention on the under-resourced crisis. “The public doesn’t fully appreciate the scope of the problem,” he said, which is why he came to Atlanta “It helps to provide a greater spotlight on how to solve this problem.”

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    President Obama said that to fully understand and solve the issue of addiction and drug abuse, there needed to be a fundamental change in understanding of addiction as a preventable disease from law enforcement to doctors to the public.

    Wen agreed, saying the current attitudes toward addiction and treatment were “unscientific, inhumane and frankly ineffective.” They too frequently ended up criminalizing addiction, she added.