Every Drug Overdose Is Preventable

As a former police chief, I have seen the devastating effect that substance abuse and addiction can have on individuals, families and communities. Almost 16,000 overdose deaths involved prescription painkillers in the United States in 2009. That is four times the number of people killed by these drugs at the end of the 1990s.

That is why this year the Obama Administration allocated more money for drug prevention and treatment programs -- $10.1 billion -- than for U.S. law enforcement and incarceration. This Administration understands substance dependence is a public health issue, not just a law enforcement issue. Reducing drug use and its consequences -- especially drug overdose deaths -- is essential to our mission, and we support efforts to bring help to people who need it.

One organization that is providing this kind of help is Project Lazarus in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Project Lazarus serves an area that has borne a disproportionally large share of the suffering caused by the prescription drug abuse epidemic in America. In 2009, the death rate in Wilkes County due to drug poisoning was four times the North Carolina state average.

Project Lazarus assists community groups and healthcare professionals throughout the state to help prevent and intervene in drug overdoses. The organization was founded on the principle that communities are responsible for their own health, and that every drug overdose is preventable. Project Lazarus empowers communities and individuals to prevent drug overdose deaths through training and overdose prevention programs. The services provided by Project Lazarus and other programs like it quite literally save lives.

Naloxone, a drug that reverses an opioid overdose, is one of the many tools used by Project Lazarus to prevent drug-related deaths. The Administration supports the use of naloxone by public health and law enforcement professionals because we have seen how effective the drug can be. While results from Project Lazarus' work are still preliminary, according to their numbers, Wilkes County has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of overdose deaths related to opioids: a 71 percent drop from 2009 to 2011. Other communities in the United States with overdose prevention and intervention programs have also seen declines in overdose deaths.

Of course, the most effective and sustainable way to prevent drug overdose is to prevent drug use in the first place. To that end, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has worked with partners in and out of government to develop an array of programs to help parents, teachers, young people, leaders and others prevent drug use in their communities. These include the "Above the Influence" media program, which educates young people about the dangers of drug use and inspires them to choose healthy alternatives, and the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, which distributes grants to anti-drug coalitions in more than 700 communities throughout the United States.

Prevention efforts do not always succeed, so we must make sure treatment is available when a substance use disorder develops. President Obama did exactly that by signing the Affordable Care Act, which includes substance use disorders as one of the ten elements of essential health benefits. By including these benefits in health insurance packages, more health care providers can offer and be reimbursed for these services, resulting in more individuals having access to treatment.

We also realize that in order to turn the tide on substance abuse and overdose rates, we must work together to break the stigma of addiction and bring the promise of recovery into the light of day. International Overdose Awareness Day -- on August 31st -- brings attention to the sorrow overdose causes and provides an outlet for those silenced by stigma to speak out about the pain of losing a loved one to overdose.

By sharing our stories and by addressing the root cause of overdose, we can save lives and build a safer, healthier America.