- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Venturing into the epicenter of Kentucky’s fight against heroin addiction, national drug czar Michael Botticelli on Thursday touted needle-exchange programs as effective grassroots initiatives to combat the spread of infectious disease and to steer heroin users into treatment.

Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, also urged the medical community’s vigilance against overprescribing pain medications. He called for mandatory medical education for prescribers as a way to stop the abuse of painkillers.

Botticelli was invited by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to visit northern Kentucky, an area especially hard hit by heroin addiction. Drug abuse is an ongoing problem in Kentucky, where overdose deaths have outpaced fatalities from motor vehicle crashes.

McConnell, a fierce critic of many of President Barack Obama’s policies, said the fight against drug abuse is a bipartisan issue.

“This is an area where there is no partisan difference,” said McConnell, R-Ky. “We’re all in this together.”

Asked whether the Republican-led Congress would pump more federal money into drug prevention and treatment programs, McConnell replied: “I’m sure there’s never enough, but we’re going to do the best we can, given the constraints that we have.”

Appearing at a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce event, Botticelli was asked about needle-exchange programs, which became a contentious issue as Kentucky lawmakers worked on sweeping anti-heroin legislation this year. The final product passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear allows local governments to set up needle-exchange programs where addicts can swap dirty needles for clean ones.

Botticelli advocated the programs as a way to help stem the spread of hepatitis and HIV and to get heroin users into treatment.

“They’ve been demonstrated to reduce not only infectious disease but also create an opportunity for people to get the care and provide a transition into treatment for people in the community,” he said.

Needle-exchange programs also reduce the risk that law enforcement officers will be infected by accidental needle sticks, he said.

The new anti-heroin law toughens penalties for heroin dealers of at least 60 grams. It increases spending by about $10 million on substance-abuse treatment programs. It would shield people who call 911 to report an overdose from being charged with drug possession.

Botticelli emphasized the importance of community efforts to combat drug abuse as he heard from a host of Kentuckians - including people who lost loved ones to drug addiction and local political leaders grappling with ways to reverse rising drug abuse rates.

He pinpointed the nation’s scourge of prescription pill abuse to the “vast overprescribing” of pain medication.

Botticelli called for mandatory medical education for medical prescribers to ensure safe and effective prescribing of painkillers.

“We need the medical community to work with us to make sure that we’re adequately treating pain but we’re not overprescribing these pain medications,” Botticelli said.

In Kentucky, state lawmakers in 2011 made it much harder for people to get prescription painkillers. As a result, addicts turned to the cheaper and more readily available heroin, an opioid with similar effects to prescription painkillers.

Among those posing questions to Botticelli was Emily Walden, who said her son T.J. died of a prescription drug overdose. He would have turned 24 on Thursday, she said. She was critical of pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She said “Big Pharma created this mess” of prescription pill abuse and bluntly asked: “When is the FDA going to put American lives before the paychecks of Big Pharma?”

Botticelli replied FDA has taken steps in which it is “increasingly looking at only approving abuse-deterrent formulations of these medications.”

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