Opioid Task Force Targets Overprescribing

As rates of opioid abuse increase across the nation, a new task force comprised of state and national agencies has been formed to focus on crimes related to opioid abuse in Oklahoma.

The new Western Oklahoma Opioid Enforcement Team was announced earlier this month as part of a national response to target the overprescription of pharmaceutical opioids. Along with the State Attorney General’s office, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and numerous district attorneys, the task force includes members of the Drug Enforcement Agency and federal prosecutors.

“We’re going to be working with a lot of partners to implement new ideas that can tackle this on everything from the treatment side to the prevention side, to the stopping of the fraud and the abuse, and even to education of our medical professionals,” said Mark Woodward, a public information officer with OBN.

While the state has already been tackling the widespread abuse of street drugs under the Oklahoma Commission on Opioid Abuse led by Attorney General Mike Hunter, the new task force represents one of the first major initiatives to prioritize the criminalization of prescription drug abuse.

By addressing overprescription alongside the proliferation of street drugs, the task force hopes to dramatically reduce rates of opioid abuse across the state, according to Bob Troester, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma.

“We cannot go about fighting this opioid crisis with a business as usual approach,” Troester said. “We will use drug trafficking statutes when the facts and circumstances call for it and we will use healthcare fraud statutes where appropriate.”

As part of the initiative, the Western District of Oklahoma has also been allocated a new civil prosecutor position in addition to resources from the federal Consumer Protection Agency and the DEA.

“We are facing one of the deadliest drug epidemics our nation has seen,” Troester said. “The misuse of and addiction to opioids, including prescription pain relievers and synthetic opioids like fentanyl, is a serious national crisis.”

Statistics from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics show that 55 percent of all Oklahoma drug deaths are a result of the abuse of at least one over-the-counter drug.

Oklahoma ranked first in the nation for prescription drug abuse in 2014 and while that ranking has since lowered due to the surge of drug abuse across the nation, Oklahoma has seen a 68 percent increase in drug deaths since 2007.

While Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties have recorded the largest number of drug deaths, Woodward said that the impact and risk of opioid abuse is just as significant in rural Oklahoma.

“You’re going to have more deaths in the more densely populated counties, but rural areas are certainly not immune to it because anyone in a rural area is just as likely to hurt their back or get in an accident and then get put on pain pills,” Woodward said.

A report from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse revealed Oklahoma to be number one in the nation for youth dependence on or abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs. The state also ranked third in the nation for youth needing but not receiving treatment for illicit drug use.

For college students, the greatest risk for opioid abuse comes from a risk of developing a dependency on prescription drugs for injuries, according to James Keith Killian, founder and director of the Substance Abuse Studies program at the University of Central Oklahoma.

“College students are more in that category than those who crush up the oxy and snort it or the heroin injectors and that kind of stuff,” Killian said.

Being aware of the difference between abuse and distinction is an important perspective to maintain in addressing the state’s opioid crisis, according to Killian.

While abuse of prescription medications and opioids is a distinct problem, Killian said dependency is another process that can lead to abuse when patients begin to rely on prescription painkillers to help them feel optimal.

“Someone who has taken it for a while, even if they have not abused it and taken it according to their prescription, can find themselves returning to the doctor for more medication to treat rebound pain, and this keeps going and going” Killian said.

A highly individual process, Killian said that dependency on a painkiller can be developed within as little as 10 days.

With these cases, Killian added that treatment to help these individuals overcome dependency is a much more cost-effective long-term solution than focusing on incarceration and criminalization, such as that being pursued by the new task force.

“Through, I’m sure, good intentions, the pendulum has swung too far the other direction,” Killian said. “Addiction is not a criminal act, it is a disease. They would not put diabetics in prison for doing whatever they could to get cake; it is just unreasonable.”

Nationally, Oklahoma ranks 42 in overall access to care for both substance abuse and mental illnesses, according to the Oklahoma Department for Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

While criminalization is a primary objective for those involved in the task force, Woodward said the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and other members are just as dedicated to promoting education and treatment options for opioid dependency.

New programs for education may be developed as part of the task force’s work, but expansion of current education programs focused on increasing awareness on the importance of disposing of prescription medication at disposal boxes located throughout the state, according to Woodward.

“We don’t want anybody living with the guilt of a friend or love one overdosing and dying from something that they should have thrown away a year or two ago because they no longer take it,” Woodward said. “It’s a simple step that every citizen can do to do their part to help with the opioid crisis.”

Woodward said that these disposal boxes can be found in police departments in each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, including one at the Edmond Police Department and one at UCO’s Police Department.

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