WASHINGTON — A Richland County, Ohio, woman is scheduled to participate on a panel in Atlanta today with President Barack Obama during a White House-supported anti-drug summit.
Crystal Oertle, 35, from Shelby, northwest of Mansfield, is in recovery from a 12-year heroin habit. A mother of two, she has described how she started as a young woman trying Vicodin, which led to an obsession and addiction to stronger opioids and ultimately heroin.
She would drive to Columbus to score drugs, sometimes bringing along her young son. Now in recovery, she is dedicating her life to helping others by telling her story and advocating for those with substance use disorders, the White House said.
Oertle gained national notice on March 13 when she asked Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a CNN-sponsored town hall in Columbus about his plans for fighting the heroin scourge. She asked Sanders what he would do about “the failed drug policy that tends to want to incarcerate addicts instead of rehabilitate them.”
Sanders responded in a way consistent with what others in the drug wars have said recently: “We have got to look at substance abuse and addiction as a health issue, not a criminal issue. Locking up addicts is not going to solve the problem.”
Heroin addiction is considered an epidemic in the United States, with drug overdoses killing 47,055 people in 2014 — more than in car accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Policymakers and Congress are considering new approaches to the problem, including moving away from strict prison sentences for drug crimes. Obama has asked Congress for $1.1 billion over the next two years for anti-heroin and opioid assistance, including $920 million to expand treatment with medical and behavioral therapy.
The Senate recently recently passed a bill to give more leeway to prosecutors who want to send offenders for treatment and diversion rather than to prison, and to give emergency responders more leeway to administer naxolone, a fast-acting antidote to heroin overdoses.
A bill to fight heroin and opioids, which still needs House of Representatives approval, will give local authorities more options for dealing with drug addiction and drug offenders.
Obama today will announce additional federal measures, including a rule to assure that drug addiction treatment is covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provide health insurance for low-income people.
The White House is expected to also announce new grants for states to buy and distribute naxolone for emergency responders.
The Atlanta conference, called the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, is the largest of its kind in the country, bringing together more than 1,800 policymakers, researchers and law enforcement officials.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief medical eorrespondent at CNN, will moderate the panel with Obama and Oertle. Also scheduled to participate are:
- Justin Riley, a 28-year-old husband and new father. Riley is president and CEO of Young People in Recovery, which includes chapters across the country that support young people in or seeking recovery. He is completing his executive MBA from the University of Colorado and has been in long-term recovery since 2007.
- Dr. Leana Wen, the Baltimore health commissioner. An emergency physician and patient and community advocate, Wen launched “one of the most ambitious opioid overdose prevention programs in the country that is training every Baltimore resident to save lives,” the White House announcement said.