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Why West Virginia locals blame President Obama for its drug problems

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Richard Babich/Times-West Virginian via AP

(Read caption) U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, William Ihlenfeld, speaks with students at West Fairmont Middle School about the dangers of drugs Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, in Fairmont, W.Va.

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President Obama will travel to Charleston, W.Va., Wednesday to address local problems of heroin and prescription painkiller abuse.

In a recent report by the Trust for America’s Health, West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths, at a rate of 33.5 per every 100,000 people – more than twice the national average. And new data from the state Health Statistics Center suggests that almost 2,900 West Virginians have died from a prescription painkiller or heroin overdose over the past five years. 

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“We’re leading in a lot of categories that we don’t like to be leading in and it’s really because of our prescription drug abuse and our heroin abuse,” Lt. A.C. Napier of the Charleston Police Department told Time.

“There’s been a tremendous public awareness campaign that has helped immensely to get people aware of the magnitude of this problem and to seek solutions,” Delegate Matt Rohrbach (R) of Cabell told the Charleston Gazette-Mail last week. “I applaud the president for coming here and helping to raise awareness of the problem.”

But many state officials are less enthusiastic about the president’s visit, blaming unemployment rates from his federal policies for the rampant drug abuse.

In a September survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, West Virginia had the highest unemployment rate of all 50 states at 7.3 percent.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a statement on Obama’s visit, directly attributing local drug abuse to unemployment from federal mandates on the coal mining industry.

“But while President Obama finds it necessary to address our state about a war on drugs, it is inconceivable that he refuses to address in any meaningful way the plight of our miners and their families,” he said. “The President’s policies have consigned our state to poverty and have caused a loss of hope in our citizens.”

Prior to Obama’s appearance in Charleston, US Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R), legislative leaders, and miners will hold a rally at the State Capitol to show disapproval for the president’s policies affecting the mining industry.

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“Unfortunately, his administration’s regulation of the mining industry has contributed to the loss of more than 8,000 direct mining jobs and tens of thousands of support positions in our state,” Chris Hamilton, co-chairman of the West Virginia Coal Forum said in a statement. “Lack of employment – and the hopelessness that [it] creates in the individual – is certainly a contributing factor to substance abuse, and we hope he recognizes that during his visit.”

After taking office, the Obama administration threw out the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule, a part of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977. This rule was a parting action by President George W. Bush that repealed a ‘buffer zone’ between mining and waterways, allowing toxic dumping from mining operations in nearby streams.  

“There’s a broader point that the president fully understands, that there is a link between social conditions and addiction,” an anonymous senior White House official told The New York Times. He adds that access to meaningful employment for local people is a priority for the administration.