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Oklahoma drug-related deaths may hit high

BY SONYA COLBERG Modified: April 5, 2010 at 6:45 am •  Published: April 5, 2010
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Drug-related deaths in 2009 are on track to be the highest the state has ever seen, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control says.

Drugs killed 452 people in the state from January to September last year, the most recent autopsy reports show.

"We will certainly surpass 2008,” said Mark Woodward, spokesman with state Narcotics Bureau.

For the same months in 2008, 448 people died.

Death reports are still trickling in but ultimately should exceed the record 612 deaths of 2008, said Darrell Weaver, director of the narcotics bureau.

"It’s obvious people are dying in Oklahoma with prescription drugs,” Weaver said. "It’s very critical that we have to find a balance in Oklahoma between folks in pain and needing medicines, and those we refer to as ‘doctor shoppers’ and folks that are addicted.”

Prescription drugs accounted for about 83 percent of the drug deaths, either by themselves or when combined with alcohol or street drugs.

The top killer is the prescription drug hydrocodone, followed by oxycodone, Woodward said.

Dr. Charles Shaw, an Oklahoma City addictionologist, said more prescription drug users are walking through his clinic doorway.

"Methamphetamine was the biggie. There’s still meth out there but what’s happened is the meth (abuse) has changed to the street prescription drugs,” Shaw said.

Change in abusers
Rather than lying in tattered clothes in a back alley, Woodward said today’s drug abusers may own a business, have a college diploma and have prescription drugs in their kitchen cabinets.

"Many do not think they’re addicted,” he said. "They think because of a car accident or something that they need this. They think because this is a prescription, they know what they’re doing and they can handle it.”

Shaw said prescription pain pill abuse frequently starts when the future abuser, who often has a family history of substance abuse, is injured and starts taking prescription hydrocodone, contained also in Lortab or Vicodin.

In Shaw’s scenario, the four-hour Lortab eventually begins providing less pain relief and the person begins to become addicted. The doctor may cut off the patient, who may then visit another doctor and get more or even a stronger dosage.