Oklahoma’s drug overdose death count set a new record in 2014, despite efforts by experts and enforcers to curtail overprescribing and raise public awareness of the crisis.
Statistics provided to Oklahoma Watch by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs show that 864 people died from overdoses last year, up from 821 in 2013. The previous record was 850 deaths in 2012.
The deadliest month was March 2014, with 90 overdose fatalities. Earlier this week, Oklahoma Watch and The Oklahoman published an investigative report on prescription drug overdoses that month.
The overdose fatality count includes deaths caused by prescription drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone and street drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine. In many cases, the victims had a combination of legal and illegal drugs in their systems. Alcohol was a factor in some deaths.
In its analysis of March 2014 deaths, Oklahoma Watch determined that approximately two-thirds of fatalities were attributable to prescription drugs, not street drugs or alcohol.
Last year’s record continues a long-term trend in which overdose fatalities have risen at an average annual rate of 12 percent since 2001, when 344 people died.
For several years, Oklahoma has ranked near the top of the nation in narcotic prescribing activity and overdose deaths. Experts and enforcers have attributed the trend to a movement within the medical community to treat chronic pain more compassionately by making opiate painkillers available to more patients.
Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a new law that will require physicians to check an online narcotic prescribing database at least once every six months before writing new prescriptions for opiate drugs, some anti-anxiety medications and certain muscle relaxers.
The law was designed to help spot patients who are receiving prescriptions from several physicians at the same time, a practice known as “doctor-shopping.”