Obama: 'We have to be honest' about race in drug addiction debate

Getty Images

President Obama on Tuesday suggested that the nation’s response to the opioid crisis has lagged because drug addiction until recently was perceived as a “poor and minority” problem.

“I think we have to be honest about this,” Obama said as he headlined a national drug abuse summit.

Obama said the U.S. relied more on police officers than doctors to deal with drug abuse until he took office. Part of the reason for the criminal justice-focused approach, the president added, “is that the populations affected were viewed as, or stereotypically identified as, poor and minority.”

“As a consequence, the thinking was it is often a character flaw in those individuals who live in those communities, and it’s not our problem that they’re just being locked up," Obama said. “One of the things that’s changed in this opioids debate is a recognition that this reaches everybody.”

The Obama administration, as well as Congress, has ramped up its response to opioids this year amid an alarming increase in death rates, particularly among white men.

Deaths from heroin overdoses have more than tripled since 2010, according to federal data. Overdose deaths have increased the fastest in rural – and mostly white – areas, where death rates from overdoses now outpace those in urban – and more minority – areas.

Deaths from drug overdoses have risen sharply among white Americans, particularly men between 25 to 34, though the rate of deaths from overdoses for black or Hispanics has remained largely flat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obama stressed that he began the shift away from a criminal justice approach "very early on" in his administration.

"The only way we reduce demand for drugs is if we increase treatment think about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal justice problem," he said.