President Obama speaks during a National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama mounted his bully pulpit Tuesday in an attempt to change the focus on heroin and opioid addiction from a criminal problem to a health issue.

It would be a major shift in emphasis if he succeeds.

Appearing on a panel at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Obama said for too long the problem of drug abuse has been viewed “through the lens of the criminal justice system.” He outlined some of the law enforcement steps his administration is taking, then returned his attention to “the most important thing we can do:” reducing demand for drugs.

“The only way that we reduce demand is if we’re providing treatment and thinking about this as a public health problem and not just a criminal problem,” he said to cheers and applause.

Obama also acknowledged that more attention is being paid to addiction as a health issue now that it is seen as a growing threat to white communities, instead of primarily a low-income black and brown police matter.

“We have to be honest about this,” he said. “Part of what has made it previously difficult to emphasize treatment over the criminal justice system has to do with the fact that the populations affected in the past were viewed as or stereotypically identified as poor, minority.”

His comments echoed remarks by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) at a House hearing last week.

“In Baltimore, where many of the victims were poor and black … our nation treated this issue like a war rather than a public health emergency,” Cummings said. “We incarcerated a generation rather than giving them the treatment they needed.”

“Now, things are changing,” he added. “Between 2006 and 2013, the number of first-time heroin users nearly doubled, and about 90 percent of these first-time users were white.”

Today heroin and other drug abusers are those, as the White House identified them, with “opioid use disorders.” Yesterday they were junkies.

The panel discussion was moderated by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, and included Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen and two people in long-term addiction recovery, Justin Luke Riley and Crystal Oertle.

Earlier Tuesday, the White House released Obama’s multi-point plan to fight heroin addiction and prescription-drug abuse. It includes his $1.1 billion budget proposal to fight the epidemic.

The plan includes:

  • Expanding access to treatment

This covers proposals to increase the availability of medical treatments and behavioral services.  More than 270 community health centers will get $94 million in funding that the Department of Health and Human Services announced earlier this month. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also is releasing $11 million to expand treatment centers in 11 states.

  • Establishing a mental health and substance-use disorder parity task force

Obama issued a memorandum creating a task force designed to facilitate access to mental-health and drug-abuse treatment. “Federal parity protections are intended to ensure that health plans’ coverage of mental health and substance use disorder benefits is comparable to their coverage of medical and surgical benefits,” according to the fact sheet. The task force has an Oct. 31 deadline.

  • Investing in community policing to address heroin

Law enforcement is to get $7 million in Justice Department funding for a Community Oriented Policing Services Anti-Heroin Task Force program.

  • Implementing syringe-services programs

HHS is providing information on using federal funds to implement or expand syringe services for addicts who inject drugs. Dirty needles are a major vehicle for spreading disease, but there was a ban on needle-exchange programs until last year. “Syringe services programs are an effective component of a comprehensive approach to preventing HIV and viral hepatitis among people who inject drugs,” according to the White House.

Despite Obama’s push for emphasizing treatment over incarceration, the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates against criminal sanctions, is only somewhat satisfied with his program.

“It has taken President Obama’s entire tenure in office, but his Administration has managed to pivot much of the White House’s drug policy towards a more health-centered approach to drug use,” Grant Smith, deputy director of the alliance, said in a statement. “However…They fail to acknowledge that we must fundamentally change the role of law enforcement and end criminal penalties, if we are to truly address this crisis as a health issue.”

Obama spoke to the role of law enforcement and got a little personal during the discussion, admitting to having had a cigarette addiction.  Without being specific about his youthful activities, he said he was lucky he did not have to battle more serious drug problems as did some of his friends.

“For whatever reason things broke that way,” he said.

But he knows they don’t often don’t break in a good way for many people.

If you are poor, he said, “you don’t get the same second chances.”

Pointing to his two daughters in high school, Obama said “I’m well aware” their ability to get drugs “is very high.”

He added, however, “they are just less likely to get in trouble, get thrown in jail and have a permanent felony record than the kids who live in those inner-cities.”

Read more:

[The color of heroin addiction — why war then, treatment now?]

[Needle exchange debate raises prosecution questions]

[America’s biggest drug threat is 100% legal]