Five years ago, Dan Cross started to notice a growing trend in drug abuse.
Addicts were doctor-shopping and buying pills from online pharmacies instead of pulling off the highway to score.
If you were looking for prescription drugs — painkillers, in particular — there were plenty to be had.
“People had cheap and easy access to these drugs,” Cross said. “UPS and FedEx drivers drove their trucks to death to deliver those drugs.”
But those days are over.
The Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act has since been passed to address online drugstores. Doctor-shoppers are monitored and tracked by law enforcement, making it more difficult for addicts to get prescriptions from multiple doctors.
“But all those addicts are still there,” Cross said. “The cheap and easy access is gone, so now they're moving onto other things or they're buying them off the street.
“And buying prescription meds off the street isn't cheap.”
Methadone use rises
With tens of thousands of Oklahomans struggling with addictions to opiate-based drugs such as OxyContin, heroin and hydrocodone, Cross said it's a shame more people don't seek treatment at methadone clinics.
Cross is the new executive director of Absentee Shawnee Counseling Services, which is situated in a converted building about a quarter mile off Interstate 35 on SE 59.
A growing form of treatment both nationally and here in Oklahoma, Cross believes methadone maintenance programs have been the victims of “bad press” and a lack of education.
Most employers also consider having methadone in your system grounds for failing a drug test, and the state doesn't reimburse patients like it does in other cases where medication is used as a form of treatment.
One those “bad press” moments came in December 2009, when 11-year-old Stephanie Wilcoxson died of a methadone overdose. The girl's mother had waited for days to report the death of the Noble girl. (Because the medical examiner's office could not determine whether she ingested the drug on her own, or whether it was given to her, it ruled the manner of her death “unknown.”)
A few months before that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing a sharp rise in methadone-related deaths in the U.S.
Can be dangerous
Cross said the rise in such deaths is troubling, but pointed out that methadone is increasingly being used to treat chronic pain, causing prescription numbers to swell in recent years. He also acknowledged that methadone is “very dangerous if not used properly,” but said the increase in related deaths is a natural progression as more people use the drug.
“I had a bad image about methadone before I did the research,” he said. “The statistics show that it has about a 70, 75 percent success rate, which is much higher than traditional, inpatient treatments.”
Cross said methadone is a successful form of treatment for people addicted to opiate-based drugs because it allows the brain to slowly get used to the idea of quitting. He said addicts coming off painkillers, in particular, are “hypersensitive” to physical and emotional pain because of damage done to their bodies through drug use.
“It also buys them time to learn and put into practice some coping skills they didn't have before,” he said. “Once they've developed those, we wean them off.”
In addition to being more conducive to an addicts' lifestyle, Cross said methadone is also far cheaper than other medication-assisted treatment programs.
“A lot of our patients don't have a lot of resources,” he said. “So, this treatment allows them to get by without turning to prostitution or other risky behavior.”
Ray Caesar, a specialist with the state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Department, said methadone clinics number 14 in Oklahoma, all of which are heavily regulated by the state.
There are six in Oklahoma City, three in Tulsa and one in Roland, Miami, Bartlesville, Ardmore and Mead.
“It's an evidence-based, best-practices treatment,” Caesar said. “Ten years ago, we only had two clinics in the state.”
With the recent news that Oklahoma ranks first nationally in terms of prescription drug abuse, Cross said he expects his clinic, which currently serves about 200, to grow.
“You don't want to grow, but the numbers are just massive,” he said. “And what we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. We're not seeing all that stuff under the water.”