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Enid News & Eagle: Oklahoma AG trying to curtail opioid crisis

Enid News & Eagle: Oklahoma AG trying to curtail opioid crisis

By Jessica Miller | Staff Writer

ENID, Okla. — Opioid overdoses have claimed the lives of almost 3,000 Oklahomans over the last three years, Attorney General Mike Hunter said during a visit to Enid on Monday.

His office is focused on trying to get a handle on the opioid crisis, Hunter said.

In 2014, there were almost 10 million prescriptions for opioid medication. That's enough to give 50 pills to every person in the state, Hunter told members of Enid Rotary Club.

Just 4.4 percent of abused painkillers come from drug dealers, 17.3 percent were prescribed by a doctor for the abuser and 66.4 percent come from a friend or relative, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Hunter said. 

"So there's an oversupply of this stuff just at everybody's house, unfortunately, and we're going to get a handle on it in several different ways," he said.

A commission is being created to look at what is needed in terms of new policy and legislation.

"How do we put, honestly, more responsibility on prescribers? Right now we have a prescription monitoring program that's supposed to ensure that people don't doctor shop. That legislation, those laws, need to be strengthened," Hunter said.

He said a careful look needs to be made to expand access to treatment in the state.

"If we're going to deal with supply — too many pills out there, too many drugs on the street — we've got to deal with demand. An addiction's an illness. We deal with demand by getting these people better. Other states are doing a better job than what we're doing because, honestly, they're investing tax dollars in the treatment programs. So that's an important part of what we're going to look at on the commission," Hunter said.

Another component is there has to be more education in schools, with parents and with prescribers, he said. There also has to be more of a commitment to "the war on drugs," and law enforcement needs more assets and funding.

"Here's where I draw the line with respect to the idea that we need to be smarter on crime. I agree we need to be smarter, but I draw the line between possession and distribution. If you're guilty of a possession crime, you've got an illness that subjects you to criminal liability. If you're dealing, you've made a calculated, cold-blooded, entrepreneurial decision to sell poison to people, and, unfortunately, the best customer base for these folks are young people," Hunter said. "So, here's my view: If you sell poison to somebody and it puts them in the emergency room, or worse yet, kills them, you've committed a violent crime. That's going to be the position of our office while I'm attorney general, and, honestly, it needs to be the position of policymakers. There's a difference between possession and distribution."

Hunter said his office will be serious about prescribers being "completely reckless" with patients. 

"When they provide them opioids without any recognition of the fact that they've got a health problem that justifies them being prescribed opioids, and that person suffers as a result, we're going to hold that prescriber responsible," he said.

Hunter said a doctor in Midwest City caused the deaths of 10 patients by providing opioids without the patients having a health need. One patient was prescribed 200 pills over the course of a month. Autopsies revealed five patients had other drugs in their systems, so his office did not file charges on those five, but second-degree murder charges have been filed for the other five patients.

In June, it was decided drug manufacturers need to be held responsible, he said.

"The oversupply that is occurring, and the misrepresentations that have been made to doctors around the country — honestly, the fraud, with respect to telling doctors, veterinarians, dentists that opioids weren't addictive — that is the root cause of the epidemic," Hunter said.

If there is success in the lawsuit, the money will be set aside and dedicated to treatment programs, law enforcement and corrections, he said.

When he chose a lawyer to lead the litigation, it was important to him to get someone who had the best interest of the state and would put heart into it. The lead counsel on the case is Michael Burrage — a former federal judge, former president of Oklahoma Bar Association and a member of Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Hunter said. Burrage's young niece died from an opioid overdose.

Other issues affecting Oklahoma

An insurance commissioner in California believes insurance companies that do business in California need to divest any investment in energy companies, he said.

"Not only is that, certainly, an injury to and an attack on an industry that employs one out of four Oklahomans, it's also dumb insurance regulation policy," Hunter said.

Hunter wrote the insurance commissioner and suggested what he was doing was illegal and inconsistent with interstate commerce. 

"He believes that he's right. We're contemplating legal action," he said. "This isn't the job of an insurance commissioner."

A group from Washington, D.C. — Americans United for Separation of Church and State — wrote a letter to the president of East Central University in Ada about a chapel on the campus. The chapel has been there for 60 years, there are religious materials inside the building and there is a steeple with a cross on the building. It has been accessible to every faith, Hunter said.

The group said the cross needs to be taken down and the religious materials need to be removed because the university is "violating the First Amendment, the separation of church and state," he said.

"Well, that's not what the First Amendment says. So, we got involved," Hunter said. 

His office told the university president it doesn't violate the establishment clause, students aren't being told they have to go to church in the chapel, it's been there for 60 years, it's always been available to people of all faiths, the cross should not be taken down and the materials should not be taken out. 

"So, we're looking forward to dealing in a more aggressive way with this group," he said. "We've told them we'll see them in court."

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter speaks during the Enid Rotary Club meeting Monday. (Jessica Miller / Enid News & Eagle)