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Obama Begins Drug Addiction Prevention Conversation In West Virginia

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here's a troubling statistic about drug abuse. In West Virginia, the number of heroin overdoses has increased almost fivefold in the last five years. President Obama heads there today. Here's West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Roxy Todd.

ROXY TODD, BYLINE: It's not exactly clear why West Virginia has had such a problem with drug abuse. There are a few factors - high rates of poverty and unemployment. Also, some addicts grew up in families where people used drugs. That's what happened to Ashley Counts.

ASHLEY COUNTS: My mom, she started out as - she was on crack. And, I mean, that was hard. And I guess, just seeing her use, she made it look fun. And that's when it all began.

TODD: Counts is 24 and has dyed-burgundy hair. On this day, she sits inside an imposing stone courthouse because, after crack, she moved onto prescription pills and then to heroin.

COUNTS: The high was just extraordinary to me.

TODD: When she was arrested for heroin possession, Counts could have gone to prison for years. Instead, she was chosen for a diversion program focused on treatment, but there was a problem; all the rehab clinics were full. So she waited in jail for a space to open up for five months. Her three children were sent to live with her grandfather. Because of the backlog, many addicts in West Virginia never get help at all. Here's Dr. Edward Eskew, an addiction specialist in Charleston.

EDWARD ESKEW: And when they are willing to try to change their lives and get help, we have a real difficult time providing that help in a timely fashion here.

TODD: State officials say about 60,000 people are seeking some sort of addiction treatment, but West Virginia only has enough facilities to help 15,000. Even some in law enforcement think more addicts should get treatment, not prison.

TRAVIS ZIMMERMAN: These aren't hardened criminals we're talking about. These are mothers. These are fathers. These are somebody's children, somebody's brother and sister.

TODD: This is Travis Zimmerman, who is Ashley Count's probation officer. When he works with addicts, he sounds more like a counselor than a cop. Here's Zimmerman meeting with a recovering addict named Mike.

ZIMMERMAN: Any problems, any hiccups, any roadblocks you've run into?

MIKE: I think I've been actually clean since April 15.

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah? All right. Well, OK. Well, we're going to test that today.

MIKE: Got you.

ZIMMERMAN: So I'm going to need you to do a drug screen today.

TODD: Mike's drug test came back clean. Studies show, when addicts get treatment, fewer return to crime. During his visit to West Virginia today, President Obama will talk about the need for judges and police officers to partner with substance-abuse organizations to steer addicts away from drugs. That's exactly what helped Ashley Counts get clean and stay clean for 18 months now.

COUNTS: They tell you, wait for the miracle. But then you come to realize, like, you are the miracle, you know? Like, look what you just went through, and you're alive. So, I mean, people just need to step back and look at it, look how grateful they are for the things they do have still and that it's not too late.

TODD: A few months ago, Counts got her GED and regained custody of her kids. She's also engaged and just gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Amelia. For NPR News, I'm Roxy Todd in Charleston, W. Va.

MONTAGNE: And we'd like to thank you this morning for listening to us on your public radio station. You can keep following us throughout your day on Facebook. We're also on Twitter - @morningedition and @nprmontagne, @NPRinskeep and @nprgreene. And that is Greene with an E at the end. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.