RICHMOND, Ky. — U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch visited a Kentucky high school Tuesday in a region hard-hit by drug addiction as part of an administration effort to draw attention to rising rates of painkiller and heroin abuse.
Lynch shared a stage at Madison Central High School with a recovering addict and a mother who lost her son to a heroin overdose.
Later, Lynch made remarks at the University of Kentucky’s College of Pharmacy, announcing millions in federal funding for states to build better databases on opioid prescriptions.
“The explosion in opioid and heroin abuse in the U.S. in recent years is truly an epidemic and no one is immune,” Lynch said at the university. “No individual, no family, no community. Opioid abuse knows no boundaries.”
Kentucky was third in the U.S. in the rate of overdose deaths in 2014, behind only West Virginia and New Hampshire. Last year, 1,200 Kentuckians died of a drug overdose.
During a question-and-answer session at the high school, Lynch asked students to raise their hand if they knew someone who had an overdose. About 20 hands went up. She said abusing pain pills puts users on a “dangerous path” to heroin.
“And we all need them to know that if they are struggling with opioid abuse, they are not alone,” Lynch said in prepared remarks. “There is help available.”
Many heroin abusers start out taking legally prescribed painkillers, Lynch noted.
That was the case for Alex Elswick, who went to high school in nearby Lexington and played baseball at Centre College. After he was prescribed pain pills following oral surgery, he slowly got hooked on the pills and then turned to heroin.
Elswick warned the 500 students gathered in the auditorium that addiction could strike anyone.
“In nine months I went from snorting oxycodone and smoking weed in my dorm to shooting heroin under a bridge in Dayton, Ohio,” he said. Elswick has appeared before members of the Kentucky’s General Assembly to lobby for legislation that addresses drug overdoses.
President Barack Obama’s administration has proposed spending about $1 billion for treatment and prevention of opioid and heroin addiction. About 165,000 people in the U.S. have died of prescription painkiller overdoses since 2000.
The funding Lynch announced Tuesday is $8.8 million from a federal grant program named for Kentucky Rep. Hal Rogers, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Lynch pointed to data collection as a crucial tool for monitoring prescriptions and sharing information between states.
All U.S. states except Missouri keep databases to track opioid prescriptions, but Lynch said improvements can be made in data collection and encouraging prescribers to use the database to flag addicts who visit several doctors seeking pain medications.