Part of a magazine series examining The Obama Legacy. Read more about this series below.

President Obama made a surprise trip to West Virginia last fall to announce a new effort to fight prescription drug abuse, an epidemic that has shredded the rural state.

"This crisis is taking lives. It's destroying families," Obama said in Charleston.

Yet the crisis had been building for five years at that point, and critics say Obama's reactions were too little and too late. Some say his government even contributed to the crisis by approving painkillers liable to abuse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first identified prescription drug abuse as a major problem in 2011, when it released statistics that showed more people died from opioid overdoses than from car crashes.

Prescription painkiller and heroin overdose deaths have since risen to all-time highs. From 2009-14, the rate of overdose deaths from heroin abuse increased by 240 percent, from 1 per 100,000 people dying of an overdose to 3.4, according to data from the CDC.

Heroin is often connected to prescription drug abuse because it is cheaper and more available than painkillers such as Oxycontin. Patients can get addicted to painkillers after receiving them from a doctor and then turn to heroin.

When you add painkiller overdose deaths to the heroin numbers, the rate of overall deaths increased 25 percent from 2009 (nearly 12 people per 100,000) to 2014 (nearly 15 people), according to CDC.

In 2014, more than 14,000 people died of overdoses, the biggest total since the CDC began collecting data in 1999.

After visiting Charleston, the White House launched programs to expand addiction treatment, and added resources for first responders and to train doctors to prescribe fewer opioids.

"The goal today is to shine a spotlight on this, and then make sure that we walk away out of here, all of us committed to doing something about it," he concluded.

The White House has taken some action in the past on opioid abuse, including additional grant funding for localities to start treatment programs, said Cynthia Reilly, head of Pew Charitable Trust's Prescription Drug Abuse Program.

However, other experts say that while the new efforts are laudable, they are late.

"CDC identified [abuse] as a problem about six years ago. Now it seems to be the No. 1 or No. 2 health issue," said Jeanmarie Perrone, professor of emergency medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Perrone had a front-row view for one of the most controversial decisions by the Obama administration: the approval of a powerful painkiller called Zohydro in 2013. She was on a panel of Food and Drug Administration advisers who recommended against approving the new hydrocodone painkiller because of the potential for abuse.

The approval sparked angry reaction on Capitol Hill. This year, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., unsuccessfully tried to block Obama's nominee for FDA commissioner. The senator cited the Zohydro approval as evidence that the FDA has turned a blind eye to the epidemic by approving opioids.

Perrone said the FDA overruled the panel's recommendation, an unusual move, because it believed the product was safe and effective. But she noted that the agency hasn't been taking into account the abuse potential of new products.

"Any opioid has an addiction rate of 5-25 percent. Can you really release another one on the market?" she said.

Proliferation of pot

Beyond presciption painkillers and heroin, several states have legalized the sale and use of marijuana under Obama's watch.

Colorado, Alaska, Washington, Oregon and the District of Columbia have each passed laws that not only decriminalize marijuana, but allow for its recreational use.

In addition, 21 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Department of Justice, meanwhile, has essentially turned a blind eye to the recreational marijuana use in states, as residents who toke up are still violating federal law.

Justice released a memo in 2013 that made it clear marijuana is still illegal under federal law. However, the federal government traditionally relied on "state and local authorizes to address marijuana activity through enforcement of their own narcotics laws. This guidance continues that policy."

Colorado's neighbors may not be too happy about that.

Neighboring states Nebraska and Oklahoma sued Colorado, saying the law has significantly increased drug trafficking. The Supreme Court, which oversees such disputes among states, shot down the lawsuit.

The impact of Colorado's marijuana law isn't fully known yet, although a March 2016 report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety does offer some initial findings.

The report found that Colorado's violent crime rate decreased 6 percent from 2009-14.

The department also analyzed data from the Colorado Hospital Administration and found that hospitalizations due to possible marijuana exposure increased from 803 per 100,000 people in 2001-09 to 2,413 from 2014-June 2015.