Oklahoma’s biggest drug problem isn’t what you think

Photo by sharyn marrow used under a Creative Commons license
Photo by sharyn marrow used under a Creative Commons license

UPDATE: Download our fact sheet about prescription drug abuse in Oklahoma here.

New National Vital Statistics data released early this month showed that the American life expectancy has reached a record high: a child born in 2009 has a life expectancy of 78.5 years, up 0.4 years since 2008. The data also showed that the racial life expectancy gap, or the difference in projected life expectancy for Black and White Americans, is at a historical low. Unfortunately, while health outcomes have improved for Black Americans, the narrowing is also due to slowing improvement for Whites.

So what’s happening? For White Americans ages 20-54, unintentional poisonings — primarily accidental prescription drug overdoses — have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of death related to unintentional injury.

The problem is especially bad in Oklahoma, which in 2010 boasted the fourth-highest rate of death via unintentional poisoning in the US.  According to the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), Oklahomans exceeded the national average for misuse and abuse of painkillers by 232 percent – a 22 percent increase since 2004. For Oklahomans ages 25 to 64, unintentional poisoning is the leading cause of injury death. The majority of unintentional poisoning deaths result from the misuse and abuse of opiates (painkillers), distantly trailed by benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety medications).  In 2007 in Oklahoma, prescription painkillers were responsible for 427 deaths — more than meth, heroine, and cocaine combined. Indeed, opiate addiction, which was once almost synonymous with heroine addiction, now almost exclusively refers to prescription medication in Oklahoma.

The vast majority of those who abuse prescription painkillers don’t purchase them from the stereotypical dealer on street corners. Almost one in five (17 percent) of those who used prescription pankillers nonmedically were prescribed the medication by a doctor; 72 percent got the medication from a friend or relative, and 60 percent of those were given the medication for free (eight percent purchased the medication from a friend or relative, and four percent took the medication without asking). Only four percent purchased the painkillers from a dealer.

The users of these drugs are also not who we might expect. As The Oklahoman wrote:

The casualties of drug abuse are not just hard-core addicts who buy bootlegged meth, crack and heroin from street dealers. They’re middle-aged and middle-class Oklahomans who start taking pain pills for bad backs and other injuries, never dreaming they could wind up tumbling down the slippery slope of addiction, or worse yet, dying from an overdose.

By all accounts, prescription painkiller abuse in the US, and in Oklahoma in particular, is now an epidemic. Annual costs of unintentional poisonings in Oklahoma top $40 million. After the prescription drug overdose of University of Oklahoma football linebacker Austin Box, Governor Fallin announced a plan to curb prescription drug abuse within five years. The state has a fairly comprehensive plan in place for reducing addiction — a report from Trust for America’s Health awarded it an 8 out of 10. Education on the issue is also badly needed – as Dr. Sanjay Gupta noted, “No one thinks having a few beers and an Oxycontin is a good idea, but you also don’t expect to die” — even though all too often, that’s exactly what happens. However, while education, disposal schemes and monitoring programs have enormous potential, none of them address the root problem: why so many painkillers are prescribed in the first place.

Hydrocodone and other painkillers do have valid, necessary medical applications. Furthermore, Oklahoma is an unhealthy state, ranking 44th worst nationwide for our citizens’ health. Oklahomans rank 42nd for poor physical health days, 45th for occupational fatalities (which suggests a similarly high level of occupational injuries), and have high rates of physical inactivity. Dental disease, a common source of severe pain, is also very prevalent in Oklahoma. Chronic pain is, in fact, undertreated in the US. In short, there are a lot of reasons in this state to prescribe painkillers. Perhaps the issue is less a need to restrict legitimate access to painkillers but to reduce the need in the first place.

Prescription painkiller abuse is a complicated, multifaceted issue with a lot of moving parts. Strong movement forward is already in progress. But there’s a long way to go to truly address painkiller addiction in Oklahoma.

Learn More // Do More


Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

3 thoughts on “Oklahoma’s biggest drug problem isn’t what you think

  1. I am writing a paper for my college sociology class on drug abuse the cause and effects, and what can be done to prevent. any info would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you

  2. A full page about the prescription drug epidemic is in the Christmas edition of the Oklahoman. The epidemic is blamed on the patients who are forced to take the addictive and potentially lethal medications. The blame is not on the patients or the physicians who write the prescriptions, but is a result of the ignorant and out dated marijuana laws in Oklahoma. I want to file a lawsuit against Oklahoma for the accidental overdose of my 36 year old son on December 9, 2013 and for forcing me to become addicted to prescription medications due to my medical condition. If my son and I had been allowed to use medical marijuana, a plant, rather than chemically created prescription medications, my son may still be alive and I would not be an addict. Oklahoma needs to change their ignorance-based views on medical marijuana, spreading lies and misinformation . Persons in medical need should have other options. I am sick and tired of Mary Fallin and Mark Woodward’s telling me and other Oklahomans to put our health and lives in danger. I am a senior citizen. I don’t need or want the Oklahoma Governor/OSBI telling what medications to put into my body to treat my medical condition.

  3. Would like to discuss your story. I have lived in California for the past 5 years,and was a oklahoma a resident the prior 23. I am looking to get involved and believe that if we all put our heads together we can make a stand against this biased view on medical marijuana.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.