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 abusersRather 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. Shaw said before long, that dosage isn’t enough and eventually the person may try oxycodone, a 12-hour drug. Legally sold, an 80-milligram tablet costs about $6. But illegally sold, Shaw said it’s usually about $80. "Once they get on that, school’s out,” he said. "OxyContin is the most horrible drug that we have in the United States.” "Oxy” offers a deadly smorgasbord of options for the abuser. The pills are the world’s only opiate that can be taken orally, crushed up and snorted, or dissolved so it can be injected, Shaw said. "It’s like heroin in a pill form. Once people use it IV (intravenously), that’s it,” he said. When the drug is injected, it reacts more quickly to cause an intense high, he said. It’s also more deadly, with a greater risk of severe respiratory depression that can kill.
What’s ahead?Drug experts have conflicting opinions about what will happen with prescription drug addictions over the next decade. Some say Oklahoma and Tulsa counties can escape their ranking among the nation’s top 15 areas of highest prescription pain pill misuse. "We’re hoping to see it turn downward, we’re hoping to reverse this trend,” Woodward said. "I think we can if more people start to realize how dangerous prescription drugs can be.” Other experts say addiction will get worse before it improves. "I would say in the next 10 years I believe we’ll have an increase in addiction, especially prescription pills,” said Pat Nichols, founder of Edmond-based Parents Helping Parents. Nichols said technology eventually should help slow prescription drug abuse. The Bureau of Narcotics’ new drug monitoring system allows doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement to tap into a database, the Prescription Monitoring Program, to track potentially addictive prescriptions given to patients. Weaver said about 38 percent of the 15,500 doctors, pharmacists, veterinarians and others in Oklahoma have registered to use the Prescription Monitoring Program. He said the program is a cornerstone to drug control efforts. "If we can have success there,” Weaver said, "I believe we’re going to have success in the long run with this silent cancer, the prescription drug issue.”