Updating state’s drug court statute could reduce overdose deaths (Capitol Update)

The Center for Disease Control released figures recently showing that 100,000 Americans died from a drug overdose between April 2020 and April 2021, nearly 30 percent more than the previous year. Of those, 798 people died in Oklahoma, a 20 percent increase. According to published reports in the Tulsa World, Dr. Jason Beaman, director of training and education at OSU’s National Center for Wellness and Recovery, said heroin, methamphetamine, and fentanyl are the big drivers of overdose deaths now. 

The epidemic started with prescription drugs, but lawmakers, courts, and federal and state agencies have drastically limited the availability of legally manufactured pills. However, demand seems to remain high. Now fentanyl accounts for about 40 percent of drug overdose deaths. The drug is taken by users either by itself or mixed, knowingly or unknowingly, with other drugs. Nearly any drug bought on the street now could contain a deadly dose of fentanyl. 

According to Dr. Beaman, the good news is that the state has improved its ability to treat substance abuse. He says 2021 will be the first time every Oklahoman suffering from substance abuse disorder, regardless of their location or ability to pay, will have access to treatment, a far cry from the lengthy waiting lists of the recent past. The gains in available treatment have happened for several reasons. The opioid lawsuit settlement by former Attorney General Mike Hunter provided $200 million to fight addiction. In addition, state funding provided through the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, private donations, and collaboration between mental health and addiction providers are increasing the availability of treatment.

But the availability of treatment does no good if people with substance use disorders do not actually receive it. One has to wonder if the criminal justice system is making comparable progress. According to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, treatment courts are the single most successful intervention in our nation’s history for leading people living with substance use and mental health disorders out of the justice system and into lives of recovery and stability. Instead of viewing substance abuse disorders as a moral failing, treatment courts view it as a disease. Instead of punishment, they offer treatment. 

District attorneys are the gatekeepers for drug court which means assistant district attorneys can block offenders from the drug court program. It might be time for the legislature to take a look at Oklahoma’s drug court statute, which was passed pretty much at the height of the war on drugs when punishment was thought to be the answer. 

According to best practice standards for adult drug court eligibility and exclusion, criteria for drug court should be defined objectively, specified in writing, and communicated to potential referral sources, including judges, law enforcement, defense attorneys, prosecutors, treatment professionals, and community supervision officers. A drug court team should not apply subjective criteria or personal impressions to determine participants’ suitability for the program.

I don’t know if the legislature will be working on the drug court statute next session, but to benefit fully from the gains in treatment availability brought about by the good work of legislators, mental health professionals, and former Attorney General Mike Hunter such an effort could be an important part of stemming the epidemic of overdose deaths in the state.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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