Lea Gray remembers the first time she got high.
She was 15. She swallowed a fat, white, doctor-prescribed Lortab in her bathroom at home. Then, while sipping out of the water fountain at school, life changed.
“It was like a wave from the top of my head to my feet, like a euphoria,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a miracle.'”
She didn't feel anything — not the pain of her deformed hips, not the fears of inadequacy, not the insecurity of being different.
“I didn't care what people thought of me,” she said. “That stuff didn't bother me anymore because I was high.”
Five years ago July 1, the state began requiring doctors to report any time they prescribe from a laundry list of narcotics.
The goal was to stop doctor-shopping addicts like Gray.
Officials said the program is working, and three out of four Oklahoma doctors are using the Prescription Monitoring Program run by the state Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control
But the prescription database, known as the PMP, doesn't stop all addicts.
The narcotics bureau estimates Oklahoma is home to 100,000 prescription drug addicts, Director Darrell Weaver said.
“For so many, they're just consuming a vast quantity of prescription drugs,” Weaver said. “And it's resulting in more deaths. ... How bad would it have been if we didn't have the Prescription Monitoring Program?”
Drug overdose deaths went from 309 in 2006 to 356 in 2009, according to the most recent data available from the state medical examiner.
Abuse can start
with real pain
Many people start taking prescription pain medicine for legitimate reasons, said Jo Ann Pearce, executive director of A Chance to Change, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those who suffer from a variety of addictions.
“Even people who become prescription drug addicts themselves don't see it the same as an illegal drug,” Pearce said. “It's prescribed by a doctor.”
That was the excuse Gray told herself for years, she said.
Gray, now 28, was born with dislocated, deformed hips. She had 10 surgeries before she could walk at age 6. She walks with a pronounced limp.
“I don't have any cartilage, so it's just bone,” she said. “It hurts all the time. That's how I became a pillhead.”
After her first Lortab, Gray didn't go without pain pills until the day she got sober — Feb. 16, 2008. At first, she didn't know she was getting high. Gray was only in junior high.
But the longer she took the medicine, the more she craved it.
“Your tolerance builds up over the years,” said Gray, who lives in Hollis. “Eventually, you can't take enough. One's too many, and a thousand's never enough.”
Database designed to stop doctor shopping
In 2006, the state narcotics bureau pumped up its Prescription Monitoring Program.
Before, doctors only had to report Schedule II controlled substances, such as morphine and OxyContin. Starting July 1 of that year, doctors had to report Schedules II, III, IV and V, which included a variety of drugs, from Valium to Xanax.
That year, Gray was in the throes of addiction.
What started as prescribed Lortab turned to more drugs, like OxyContin shot into her veins with a needle.
“We would lick the coating off them that keeps them time-release and shoot them up like heroin,” she said.
She lost her job as a phlebotomist. Her addiction led to abusive relationships and the neglect of her son.
Gray doctor shopped, hopping from physician to physician, asking for medicine to relieve the pain of her deformed hips.
Doctors still have to look out for fraudsters — those patients who use maiden or middle names to avoid detection, said Dr. Hal Vorse, medical director of A Chance to Change and an expert in opiate dependency.
“If you continue to prescribe, then you become part of the problem,” Vorse said. “You become the dealer, not the doctor.”
The PMP is a helpful tool, Vorse said, and it prevents many unnecessary or illegal prescriptions.
Vorse uses it in his own practice to discover patients who relapsed and picked up narcotics from other doctors. His office detects about 10 to 15 relapsed patients a month.
“It's not just a criminal justice issue,” Vorse said. “If you can identify those folks and intervene, you can save their lives. They'll die of their addiction.”
Even after the PMP was expanded five years ago, Gray still was able to get what she craved. She said she believes her limp made her even more convincing.
catch all addicts
Adding drugs to the Prescription Monitoring Program has been a huge success, said Weaver, the narcotics bureau director.
“There's no telling how many lives we've saved in intervention,” Weaver said.
Beginning Jan. 1, doctors will be asked to report prescriptions in real time, instead of within 24 hours. Weaver said he hopes the changes will mean even more progress and even more participating doctors. Law enforcement needs their help.
“Prescription drugs are killing more Oklahomans than any illicit drugs,” Weaver said. “We simply cannot arrest our way out of this.”
Gray managed to slide under the PMP radar because of her medical condition. In the process, she incurred a pair of DUIs, the second while driving with her son in the car.
But the hole she dug wasn't deep enough.
“At the end, my baby's playing in the floor and I'm in the bathroom with some guy and he's shooting me up,” she said. “That's how bad it got.”
It was an arrest — her third DUI — that changed things.
Gray was lucky enough to go to drug court, where she was sent to treatment instead of prison.
Now, she's been sober for more than three years. She has a job and lives with her father, sister and son, who is 9.
She doesn't take any painkillers for her hips for fear of a relapse, she said. She'll be eligible for hip replacement in two years, when she turns 30, but Gray hasn't decided whether she'll do it. She fears she may risk a relapse if she needs pain medicine after the surgery. For now, she'll keep her limp.
“The longer I wait,” she said, “the more stable I'll be in my recovery.”
Today, Gray is a different kind of mother. She takes her son to ballgames and to school.
She said she hopes the PMP will catch more addicts like her, even the ones with real medical conditions.
“Most addicts don't want to be the way they are,” she said. “They just haven't found the path leading out of it yet. You feel hopeless. You feel like there's no way out. But there is a way out.”