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Local News

March 3, 2012

Painkiller abuse more rampant in Oklahoma than any other state

It’s the No. 1 ranking the state would just as soon forget.

Approximately 240,000 Oklahomans — 8 percent of the population age 12 and above — took prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons over a 12-month period, the federal government reported last year.

Oklahoma’s rate of recreational painkiller use was the highest in the nation, the government said, and the state ranked in the top 10 in other categories of drug abuse.

The embarrassing statistics underscore the conclusion reached by many health professionals, public policy experts and law enforcement officials.

Oklahoma, they say, has become a state of addiction.

It’s not just parking lot pushers peddling meth, crack and heroin to hardcore addicts.

In all too many cases, it’s ordinary Oklahomans who started taking pain pills because of bad backs or other chronic pain conditions and wound up getting addicted.

Prescription painkillers derailed the basketball coaching career of Oklahoma State’s Sean Sutton. They ended the life of Sooner linebacker Austin Box, whose autopsy showed a mixture of six narcotics in his system.

“The stereotype of the drug addict is completely out of date,” said Hal Vorse, an addiction treatment physician in Oklahoma City. “I tell people that if you want to look at my patient population, go over to the mall on a Saturday afternoon and watch people walk by — because that’s who they are. I’ve got everything from teenagers to grandmas, every profession under the sun: laborers, doctors, nurses, teachers. You name it.”

On an average day, two Oklahomans die from drug overdoses.

In 2010, for the first time since anyone started counting, more Oklahomans died from overdoses than were killed in motor vehicle crashes. The drug tally was 739, the traffic toll 683.

“It’s haunting how much drug activity is going on around here, and nobody really realizes it,” said Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. “The bottom line is, it affects all Oklahomans.”

The prescription drugs of choice among abusers include the painkillers hydrocodone (also sold as Vicodin and Lortab), oxycodone (Percoset and OxyContin), methadone, fentanyl and morphine. All are chemical cousins of heroin.

More than half of all overdose deaths involve a “cocktail” of several prescription narcotics. A frequent contributor is the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, often sold as Xanax.

Federal health authorities say misuse of painkillers tends to be highest among poor and rural populations. Men are more frequent abusers than women.

Addiction experts and health care authorities say substance abuse exacts a tremendous toll on the state and its citizens.

When all of the direct and indirect costs are tallied up, the tab comes out to $7.2 billion a year, according to the National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors.

The direct costs, such as spending on hospital care, doctors, police and prisons, add up to $1.8 billion, the group said.

Indirect costs, such as employee absenteeism and reduced productivity, chew up another $5.4 billion.

“In the oil fields of Oklahoma, if you’ve got oil workers who miss work because they’re drunk or on meth, they still pump the oil, but they have to hire more people,” said Rick Harwood, the association’s research director. “Maybe they overstaff because they know that one out of 20 is going to be absent on a given day. That’s a cost that somebody has to pay, one way or another, and usually those increases in costs are passed on.”

Many of the costs involve young Oklahomans.

In 2010, parental neglect accounted for 88 percent of the 18,000 children removed from their homes by the courts and Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

“Untreated addition is a major part of that, and it could’ve been prevented if those parents had received treatment,” said Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Part of the problem is a lack of treatment options.

On any given day, 600 to 900 Oklahomans are on a waiting list for a bed in a publicly funded residential substance abuse center.

About 160,000 Oklahomans need treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, according to the state mental health department. The figure includes an estimated 20,000 teenagers.

“In our system, we have enough resources to serve about one-third of the Oklahomans who financially qualify for our services and need help,” White said. “So on any given day, two-thirds of Oklahomans who need help, and qualify, can’t get it.”

Jaclyn Cosgrove contributed to this report. Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, investigative and in-depth reporting team that collaborates with other news organizations and higher education to produce journalism that makes a difference in the lives of Oklahomans.

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