LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The nation's drug czar explained Thursday that the most effective way to address widespread addiction problems is to approach chronic drug abuse as a brain disease and strive to provide treatment to addicts.
National Drug Control Policy Director R. Gil Kerlikowske told about 700 people gathered for a conference on addressing prescription drug abuse that addiction should not be treated as "a moral failure."
Kerlikowske noted that drug overdoses now kill more Americans than traffic crashes or gunshot wounds.
"This is an unbelievably complex problem," he said.
Working with physicians, educators and pharmacy schools to bring awareness of the problem can help.
Kerlikowske, whose background is in law enforcement, also said that prescription drug take-back events are effective in getting drugs away from young people and others who may abuse them.
It's not only statistics that illustrate the depth of the problem. Kerlikowske said it's common for real estate agents to advise people showing homes to lock up their medications.
"In my old job, we'd call that a clue," he said, bringing quiet laughter.
Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who ran the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush, said he is supportive of making treatment a major focus.
But Hutchinson said treatment has to be coupled with enforcement among people charged with crimes.
"Without the enforcement, you're not even triggering treatment," Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson also called for President Barack Obama's administration to address the conflict with federal law brought about by initiatives in Colorado and Washington state that legalized marijuana at the state level.
Kerlikowske said that the popularity of medical marijuana sends the wrong message to young people.
"This isn't medicine," Kerlikowske said.
Kerlikowske said that it is difficult and takes a long time to prosecute doctors who run "pill mills" and that word of mouth from community activists can steer people away from the clinics.
He pointed to a number of successes, including a 40 percent drop in cocaine use since 2006 and, at least in some regions, declines in methamphetamine use. Also, the number of people abusing prescription drugs fell from 7 million in 2010 to 6.1 million in 2011.
In 2010, more than 38,000 deaths were attributed to prescription drug overdoses, he said. About 32,000 Americans died from gun violence, on average, between 1981 and 2007, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. A similar number died from traffic deaths in 2011, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.
Heroin use is on the rise. The opiate has had such a small role in American life for so long that many young people don't understand the risks. He said they often start by smoking or snorting the drug but that can lead to addiction and eventual use of needles.
"We should be very concerned," he said.
Kerlikowske said the general public realizes that drug offenders and people whose crimes are related to drugs will eventually get out of jail.
If there is "appropriate parole and aftercare work and supervision," communities will still be safe, he said.
Kerlikowske spoke at the Arkansas Prescription Drug Abuse Summit in Little Rock.