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EVENTS recently in Georgia offer only the latest example of why a task force focused on opioids holds importance in Oklahoma.
Early last week, law enforcement and public health officials in Georgia were busy spreading the word about more than a dozen overdoses related to fake Percocet. At least four people died.
Percocet contains oxycodone, which is an opioid pain medication. Percocet is a prescription drug, but those who overdosed in Georgia were using a version sold on the streets. It's possible they were tainted with fentanyl, a synthetic drug that has turned up frequenly in state after state.
Here's a prayer it doesn't sweep through Oklahoma, because officials have enough of a battle trying to curb the misuse of legal painkillers.
In calling for establishment of the Oklahoma Commission on Opioid Abuse, Attorney General Mike Hunter said 2,684 people in Oklahoma had died from opioids in the past three years — and that the official death toll was likely higher because not all deaths result in a toxicology screening.
"The statistics are pretty grisly," Hunter said during a recent meeting with The Oklahoman's editorial board.
In 1999, Oklahoma had 5.36 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people. A decade later, the rate was 20.63 deaths per 100,000 people. It stood at 19 deaths per 100,000 in 2015. Last year, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said Oklahoma led the country in the percentage of residents 12 and older who abuse prescription painkillers.
Oklahoma's problem is a piece of a national problem. In 2014, Dr. Nora D. Volkow with the National Institute on Drug Abuse told Congress that from 1991 to 2013, the numbers of prescriptions for opioids in the United States had grown from 76 million to nearly 207 million. The United States, Volkow said then, accounted for almost 100 percent of the world's total for hydrocodone and 81 percent for oxycodone.
Factors contributing to the severity of the prescription drug abuse problem, she said, “include drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies.”
Hunter said a goal of his commission will be to reduce opioid-related deaths "dramatically." He said he wants to make sure the state's prescription monitoring database is being used properly, and ensure that various medical licensing boards are cracking down on bad actors when necessary. "Law enforcement is going to be an important part," he said.
So too will be efforts to expand rehabilitation services for those suffering from addiction. And, it's possible that drug manufacturers will be targeted. "It's hard for me to see anything but culpability" on their part, Hunter said, although no legal action is imminent.
The state of Ohio recently filed suit against pharmaceutical companies, and in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation is using its court to go after wholesalers and retailers of opioids. Hunter said that in 2016, in the 14 counties that comprise the Cherokee Nation (population: roughly 1 million), there were enough prescription drugs available to provide each person with 95 milligrams.
Hunter hopes to get the commission working by early July and provide proposals to the Legislature by year's end. The fight to curb opioid abuse is one worth having, one Oklahomans should hope succeeds.