‘It’s our No. 1 killer’: Deaths linked to meth have surged in Oklahoma

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As Oklahoma has gotten a foothold in its battle with opioids, the number of people dying from methamphetamine use has skyrocketed and more people are seeking addiction treatment.

The synthetic drug had a part in 330 overdose deaths in 2017 — up 136 percent from 2012.

Experts say methamphetamine is tied to more deaths than any other single drug in Oklahoma, but compared to opioids it receives little attention.

Mark Woodward is a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics & Dangerous Drugs Control. He said meth is Oklahoma’s “No. 1 killer” when it comes to drug-related deaths.

“It’s just not making the headlines, and it should be,” Woodward said. “I think too many people are under the impression that when meth labs went away, meth deaths went away.

“It’s disappointing, that’s for sure.”

Woodward said there is still a great deal of unknowns about the deaths, and it’s unlikely people are overdosing from using too much meth at a time.

Agency leaders suspect many of the deaths can be attributed to long-term meth use, he said. OBN does not have a category for those deaths, so they are considered overdoses.

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“I think one of the things also contributing is these meth addicts have been using since the 90s,” Woodward said. “Their bodies are wearing out. They’re using the same amount, but their bodies are not what they used to be.”

As Oklahoma started passing laws in the early 2000s tightening restrictions on pseudoephedrine sales — a key ingredient in meth that when properly used can treat cold symptoms — the number of meth labs started to dwindle.

Though the number of  labs has died down and the drug is produced less frequently in Oklahoma, meth is much more accessible, Woodward said. The drug is coming to Oklahoma through Mexican cartels, and the price has dropped considerably.

Dr. Jason Beaman is the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences. He monitors every overdose death in the state.

When Oklahoma began limiting pseudoephedrine sales, meth-related deaths declined considerably, Beaman said. But over the last few years, he has seen a dramatic increase.

“It’s (the meth is) much different. … It’s extremely high quality — 100 percent pure meth,” he said. “It’s consistent product, not a lot of variability. It’s just so pure, and we’re just seeing a lot of deaths.”

Dr. Jason Beaman monitors every overdose death in the state. KASSIE McCLUNG/The Frontier

Beaman said he received 10 reports of overdose deaths on Friday. At least one of those was meth related — a 65-year old man from northeast Oklahoma with heart disease who tested positive for meth.

“If you have heart disease, there’s nothing worse than using meth,” Beaman said.

Beaman said methamphetamine use is “devastating” to the heart. The drug can increase a user’s heart rate, forcing the organ to work harder. It increases blood pressure and can induce a stroke. Meth can also cause symptoms of psychosis, a severe mental disorder.

When a person stops using meth, he or she might experience a period of profound depression, Beaman said. He said he has seen several patients who have attempted suicide after discontinuing use of the drug.

As Oklahoma gets ahold of its opioid problem, people are likely to fall back on meth use, Beaman said. In 2017, 317 people died from opioid overdoses — down from 435 in 2016, according to the OBN.

“Ten years from now I think we will have a problem with meth and heroin,” he said.

“Don’t get me wrong, the opioid epidemic is absolutely horrible, but we cannot lose sight of meth.”

The number of people seeking addiction treatment for meth use has increased, too.

From 2015 to 2017, the number increased by almost 43 percent, according to data from the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (3,939 people in 2015 and 5,620 in 2017).

David Patterson is the clinical services supervisor at The Recovery Center in Oklahoma City, a facility that specializes in medically-supervised drug detoxification.

Patterson, who has worked at the center for more than five years, said he assesses several patients each day, many for meth use.

“I want to say they’re on the rise,” Patterson said of the number of people he sees using meth. “What I’m hearing from people is it’s because it’s more inexpensive. … It’s very accessible to use.”

Patterson said patients tell him meth is appealing because compared to other drugs, they get a longer high for less money.

The price of meth has plummeted. An ounce went for $1,000 to $1,400 in 2014, according to the OBN. Now, an ounce typically sells for $250 to $800.

Relapse rates among meth users who seek addiction treatment are high, Patterson said. And unlike opioids, meth addiction cannot be treated with medication.

“There’s an almost super-human level of energy they’ve been used to, then to just go cold turkey, it could take up to a year for a regular meth user to turn back into normality,” he said.

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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