As large pharmaceutical companies testify in court, government officials and church leaders in Oklahoma search for ways to stop a widespread opioid crisis.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, two million people in the U.S. over the age of 12 abuse opioid-based prescription painkillers. A 2016 report from the Center for Disease Control found five percent of all Oklahomans 12 or older abuse or misuse prescription painkillers regularly.
Some states claim Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company, started the problem when they heavily marketed the opioid painkiller OxyContin as a non-addictive painkiller starting in 1995. In 2007, Purdue Pharma was fined $600 million dollars for deceptive advertising.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter sued several pharmaceutical companies June 2017, claiming the companies falsely advertised the risks associated with taking opioid painkillers. Hunter said he hopes to obtain a substantial amount of money from the companies in order to fight opioid addiction in the state.
“We believe these companies are responsible for the heartbreaking number of Oklahomans who have died as a result of the opioid epidemic in our state,” Hunter said in a press conference following the announcement of the lawsuit. “By waging a fraudulent, decades-long marketing campaign to profit from the suffering of thousands of Oklahomans, these companies have made in excess of $10 billion per year.”
Oklahoma Christian Director of Counseling Sheldon Adkins said he has counseled a handful of patients with prescription painkiller addictions. According to Adkins, doctors in the past likely overprescribed opioids, because they were effective in treating pain and their addictive qualities were unknown. Now, the side effects of opioid painkillers are known, and Adkins said doctors should utilize alternative forms of treatment whenever possible.
“When people come in and they’re in pain, doctors want to do their jobs and help them alleviate that pain right away,” Adkins said. “My thought would be no doctor wants to create, or play a part in creating, an addiction in someone. I assume, innocently, there was a period of time where doctors just maybe didn’t realize or didn’t understand fully the effect this would have.”
The state government has taken steps to lower the number of opioids available on the street. In March 2015, Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law a bill requiring Oklahoma doctors to check a statewide drug database before prescribing opioid painkillers to patients. As addicts became unable to doctor shop for opioid prescriptions, the number of drug overdose deaths decreased from 870 in 2015, to 823 in 2016.
According to Adkins, the profile of a typical opioid abuser is often an average person who began taking prescription painkillers as prescribed.
“People often don’t think of opioid abusers as normal people who are recovering from back or tooth surgery,” Adkins said. “These are people who work and have families and kids. They’re not homeless.”
Chellie Ison is a ministry leader who works with the Memorial Road Church of Christ’s Celebrate Recovery program. Celebrate Recovery is a 12-step program, which provides support for those facing any kind of addiction. She said there are some in the program who are currently struggling with opioid abuse.
“We have a men’s group that is specifically for chemical addiction,” Ison said. “It’s definitely been something that has proven an issue. It doesn’t matter your age, race or social class, we have seen people with very good professions come through struggling with an opioid problem.”
As state funding for counseling services decreases and wait lines for residential treatment grow, many in Oklahoma have turned to church-sponsored rehabilitation programs for help overcoming a drug addiction. Ison said support groups like Celebrate Recovery should be used as a supplement to professional help, not as an alternative.
“There are some people who need a deeper level of help than what we are,” Ison said. “We are a support group, not therapy. But we hope that ,when people come in, they feel this is a safe place to get that support, and maybe even find people who can help connect them with a good professional treatment provider.”