The age at which a person starts using substances increases it. The younger someone starts, the higher the probability for addiction.
Joey's wasted years
Joey Dawson, 36, of Hobart, had his first drink at 13. Hobart, in southwest Oklahoma, was like many small towns — there wasn't much to do, and it seemed like everybody drank, Dawson said.
Dawson had family members who had tried meth. He had seen them struggle, had seen them change; he knew the dangers. But at the age of 23, at a party, he decided to give it a try himself.
“From the day that I tried it, I didn't stop until I got in trouble,” Dawson said.
After about a year, Dawson started manufacturing meth. By 2002, he had meth-related charges pending in Kiowa County. When he got in trouble four months later in Cordell, he knew he was probably going to prison.
He spent 11 months in the county jail. His girlfriend gave birth to his son while he was there. That was a game-changer for Dawson, he said.
“After he was born, I realized it wasn't about me any more,” Dawson said. “I think if they had let me out right then, I would have been fine.”
Dawson was convicted on charges of manufacturing meth and possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute. He got two 10-year sentences that ran concurrently.
He spent four years in prison at the Bill Johnson Correctional Center, in Alva, matching almost day for day for the four years he was addicted to meth.
Dawson got into a treatment program at the prison. Between the program and his son, he was ready for a change.
Once Dawson got out, he said, he told all of his old “friends” that he had become a government snitch. It was a good way to ensure he wouldn't repeat his past.
Dawson now works for an oil and gas drilling company, is married and has custody of his 9-year-old son.
Users behind bars
Like Dawson, the majority of people headed to prison are nonviolent offenders. An analysis of nonviolent prison admissions from 2005-10 showed 44 percent involved drug-related offenses, mainly possession.
Not all offenders are as lucky as Dawson.
In 2010, for example, 885 female offenders who left prison had been assessed as needing substance abuse treatment.
About 72 percent of them, or 633 offenders, had not received it.
A recent state Corrections Department study determined that offenders who completed an approved substance abuse treatment program reduced their chances of returning to prison by 20 percent.
For every $100 that Oklahoma spends on substance abuse and addiction, only about $2 goes to prevention, treatment and research, while $97 goes to cover other direct costs such as incarceration, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
“And the horror is that it doesn't have to be that way because we know more effective ways to make use of the tax dollar,” said Susan Foster, the center's policy director.
“We just haven't done it — policy hasn't caught up with science.”
Waiting for help
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. An estimated 20,000 teenagers are in need of drug and alcohol treatment.
Alcohol abuse is far more common than drug addiction. For every seven people who need treatment for alcohol, only one needs help for drugs.
But only a few get state-funded help. To qualify, a person must have no other means to pay and no other sources of assistance. That excludes anyone with private insurance, unless it's a child whose private insurance company won't cover the costs.
“In our system, we have enough resources to serve about one-third of the Oklahomans who financially qualify for our services and need help,” said White, the mental health commissioner.
“So on any given day, two-thirds of Oklahomans who need help, and qualify, can't get it.”
Rhonda McGough faces this challenge every day as a drug and alcohol counselor in Idabel, a town of about 7,000 in southeast Oklahoma.
“You have to try to look outside the box to get your clients access to resources readily available in their towns,” said McGough, who works for the Kiamichi Council on Alcoholism & Other Drug Abuse.
The lengthy wait for an inpatient bed sometimes is a deal-breaker.
“A lot can happen in three to four months,” McGough said.
“A person who comes in today and says, ‘I'm ready to do this' may not be saying that two weeks from now.”