Jennifer Norris recalls having no problem getting oxycodone on the street in Muskogee, with no prescription, although she lived in Tulsa.
“I would drive here (Muskogee) to go to older people and buy the pills from them,” she said.
That helped Norris, 35, feed an opiate addiction that began when she was a teen.
Despite aggressive laws controlling access to prescriptions, abuse of prescription drugs remains high in Muskogee and other counties.
Muskogee County ranks sixth among Oklahoma’s 77 counties for prescription drug indicators, said Lindsey Roberts, the director of regional prevention coordination for Neighbors Building Neighborhoods. The indicators include prescription drug-related crimes, treatment admissions and overdoses, fatal and nonfatal.
Other area counties also ranked in the top half of the list: Wagoner County at No. 14, Cherokee County at No. 25, and McIntosh County at No. 36, Roberts said.
Why Muskogee County has such a prevalence of prescription-related issues is “the million-dollar question,” Roberts said.
“We have a very large medical community, but it’s not that doctors are over-prescribing,” she said. “Doctors here do a good job of downloading the prescription monitoring program.”
Under the program, prescription drug dispensers such as pharmacies must submit information on controlled substance prescriptions to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control every 24 hours.
Earlier this month, the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health cited such laws in its declaration that Oklahoma has aggressive laws against prescription drug abuse. The Trust’s report said Oklahoma scored positive in eight out of 10 strategies for curbing prescription drug abuse. These include a law requiring a pharmacist to require an ID before dispensing a controlled substance. The report also cited a law that prohibits patients from withholding information from doctors about previous prescriptions.
Prescription drug laws are about to get tougher.
Under a new law that takes effect Nov. 1, prescriptions for any medication containing hydrocodone may not be refilled. A notice on the State Board of Pharmacy’s website says the law will apply even if the prescription was written before Nov. 1.
“It is supposed to be a new prescription each time,” said Gary LaRue, the board’s compliance officer. He said a doctor could still phone or fax a prescription to a pharmacist.
“It has to have a valid doctor-patient relationship for the prescription to be valid,” LaRue said.
However, even with aggressive laws on dispensing prescription drugs, the Trust said Oklahoma had the fifth-highest drug overdose mortality rate in the United States. Using statistics from 2010, it said Oklahoma had a mortality rate of 19.4 deaths per 100,000 people. The report said the number of drug overdose deaths in Oklahoma tripled since 1999, when the rate was 5.4 per 100,000. Most of those came from prescription drugs.
Abuse of prescription drugs has become a top national health concern, the Trust says.
“Prescription drug-related deaths now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined,” its website says.
Jeremy Little, a regional prevention coordinator for Neighbors Building Neighborhoods, said, “Four to five times more people are dying from prescription drug abuse than methamphetamine.”
Roberts said Neighbors Building Neighborhoods conducted a community survey and found:
• 72 percent of the respondents knew of someone who used prescription drugs to get high.
• 52 percent said young adults were the biggest abusers of prescription drugs.
• 42 percent said they had taken prescription drugs belonging to someone else.
“In addition to the availability of prescription drugs, many within our community do not see prescription drugs as harmful because ‘if they are prescribed by a doctor then they must be safe,’” Roberts said. “Therefore, they will misuse the medication under a false sense of safety. In addition, many people do not understand that taking more than the prescribed amount or taking someone else’s prescription is very dangerous and illegal.”
Norris is working to avoid being another statistic. She is receiving treatment at MONARCH, a drug and alcohol treatment program for women.
“I probably was addicted since I was 15 and I’m 35 now,” she said. “I was born with scoliosis and have been dealing with a lot of back pain.”
She said she started using Lortab as a teen.
“I was just getting them from friends here and there,” she said.
She hurt her back in a 2003 car wreck and her doctor prescribed Lortab, she said. For the last five years, she also had been using oxycodone, obtaining prescriptions from different doctors.
“I liked the way they made me feel, like I was Supermom,” she said. “I thought I could do what I wanted to. It gave me lots of energy.”
By 2006, she was taking 50 Lortab tablets a day, she recalled.
She went to treatment centers, but the treatment didn’t last.
“I wasn’t ready to give it up,” Norris said. “I wasn’t ready to learn to live life on life’s terms.”
Withdrawal was hell, she said.
“You feel like you have the flu multiplied by a million; that you’re run over by a Mack truck,” she said.
She eventually got caught by the state’s prescription monitoring program.
“I couldn’t go doctor shopping anymore, so I started writing my own prescriptions,” she said.
Norris was arrested and sent to drug court.
She said she underwent more drug treatment but then started using methamphetamine. She was arrested again and was put in MONARCH.
After 60 days at MONARCH, Norris said, “I feel amazing now.”
She said aggressive laws help curtail abuse, but it is still easy to get prescription drugs on the street “if you know the right people.”
“I don’t think the issue would ever be resolved,” she said. “Doctors need to be more strict with their patients.”
Reach Cathy Spaulding at (918) 684-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prescription drug indicators
“Prescription drug indicators” is an umbrella title for prescription drug overdoses, prescription-related crimes and prescription-related treatment admissions.
Area county rankings for indicators in Oklahoma:
• Muskogee: 6.
• Wagoner: 14.
• Cherokee: 25.
• McIntosh: 36.
Source: Neighbors Building Neighborhoods