While national attention is focused on the state’s opioid trial, a less visible killer continues to ravage Oklahoma.
Methamphetamine took the lives of 327 Oklahomans in 2017, an increase of 600% in 10 years.
“It’s still climbing today and is a huge issue,” said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. “It’s our No. 1 killer if you look at a single drug.”
Woodward said as much as 15 pounds of crystal meth is coming from Mexico into Oklahoma each week. Oklahoma City and Tulsa have become primary distribution points, sending the drug to Okmulgee, Enid and even small towns like Clayton in Pushmataha County. “There’s not a community that is not impacted,” he said.
Leaders in Tulsa are fighting back. A community plan of attack, funded by the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation, will roll out in late summer or early fall.
Phase One will tackle the immediate need for treatment and support of addicts, as well as law enforcement protocol; Phase Two will deal with prevention.
“It’s a problem that’s much more difficult to solve than the opioid crisis,” said Zack Stoycoff, with Healthy Minds Initiative. The mental health policy organization and national consultants TriWest Group are working with Tulsa community members and state agencies to develop the plan.
“Meth addicts are different than other addicts,” said Courtney Knoblock, program director for the Zarrow Foundation. “They need a different kind of intervention.“
The meth problem is both a health crisis — attacking the body, teeth, brain and other organs — and a top priority for law enforcement, she said.
“There’s really nothing like it,” Knoblock said. “We hope this meth plan will become a template that other communities can use and even scale up to become a statewide plan.”
The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics began tracking meth labs in 1994 when there were about 10 in the state, Woodward said. At the peak of activity in 2003, agents shut down more than 100 labs per month, he said. “And those were the ones we found.”
The next year, Oklahoma enacted its anti-meth law, putting pseudoephedrine — a key ingredient of meth — behind pharmacy counters.
“Almost immediately overnight we began to see dramatic drops in meth labs,” Woodward said. Today, agents find 15 to 20 a year.
Some users went to treatment, but they were few and far between, he said.
“The cravings were still there,” Woodward said. “Crystal meth and ‘ice’ from Mexico came to Oklahoma to fill the void.”
The availability and purity of methamphetamine from the Mexican drug trafficking organizations only increased the problem that some people thought had been solved by the 2004 law.
“Methamphetamine is making a massive resurgence in Oklahoma,” said Terri White, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “The state as a whole hasn’t really realized — although they will pretty quickly I think — the extent that methamphetamine is on the rise.”
Veronica Lawrence celebrated her 33rd birthday Friday. It was her first sober birthday as an adult.
“My mom, she was a meth cook, so she stuck a needle in my arm for the first time when I was 16 years old,” said Lawrence, an Oklahoma City mother of three.
Lawrence said she helped her mom cook and sell meth at 16 and 17 rather than going to school. After her mom was sent to federal prison the second time, Lawrence lived in chaos and through multiple abusive relationships. She lost two homes and everything she owned to meth twice.
“It’s a very cunning enemy. It will take everything you have,” she said.
“I finally said ‘I’ve had enough,’” Lawrence said. “I was sick and tired of nothing good ever coming out of what I was doing.”
In October, she moved into Jordan’s Crossing — a residential substance abuse program for women with children — and spent five months getting her life back. Today she has a three-bedroom apartment with her kids and is working toward her GED at Oklahoma City Community College.
Treating a meth addiction is time-intensive and expensive, and people must wait for a bed at a treatment center. The list is growing.
At 12 & 12 Inc. addiction recovery center in Tulsa, 405 men and women have been admitted for meth since July 1. Another 31 adults in Tulsa County died from a meth-related overdose between May 13 and Dec. 23. They were predominately white (84%) and male (68%). The median age was 42.
Meanwhile, the narcotics bureau is focusing on months-long investigations that result in 50 or more arrest warrants, Woodward said.
“You can really disrupt the flow of meth into a community by taking the entire cell down,” he said.
An investigation often starts with a single arrest by local law enforcement, he said. “It’s certainly not a single-agency effort.”