Officials: Oklahoma sees massive spike in opioid overdose deaths

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Officials have announced a new collaborative effort to better fight opioid and drug abuse in Oklahoma.

Acting U.S. attorney Bob Troester announced the 'Western Oklahoma Opioid Enforcement' on Thursday, which includes multiple state and federal agencies. According to Troester, the plan is to utilize each agency's unique expertise.

"We are facing one of the deadliest epidemics our nation has seen," said Troester. "We cannot go about fighting this opioid crisis with a ‘business as usual’ approach."

The team's approach is use criminal, civil, and administrative tools to target and prosecute those they say are responsible.

"This squad will focus on pharmaceutical diversion. They will focus on the doctors overprescribing and prescribing for profit and flooding our neighborhoods. They will also focus on pharmacies not properly maintaining their inventory," said DEA special agent-in-charge Clyde Shelley. "When it comes to this, DEA's all in."

The announcement of the team comes at a time the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics has seen an almost 300 percent increase in overdose deaths linked to opioids since 2003.

"Last year, we had almost 800 drug-related deaths that were autopsied and of those, almost 50 percent, 47.7 percent, of those involved at least one opioid," said Mark Woodward with OBN. "Often times, it was painkillers. It could have been heroin or fentanyl."

Woodward said in 2007, there were two reported cases of heroin overdose deaths in Oklahoma. In 2017, that figure rose to 59. He said two major factors include the accessibility to painkillers and the affordability.

"It’s relatively free when you’re talking about insurance paying for it after a car accident or surgery or stealing it out of a medicine cabinet so it doesn’t cost you anything," he said. "Most of us will probably never have cocaine, or meth, or heroin in our home, but any one of us can be in a car accident or surgery, and we’re going to have it in medicine cabinets or take it for legitimate reasons."

However, he said the problem is not completely homegrown. Instead, he said described it as a global crisis.

"Over in China, we’re seeing large amounts of black market synthetic fentanyl or opioids coming into the United States and some of them are back filled into heroin or they’re pressing the fentanyl into pills that look like oxycodon and you’ll see these clusters of death," he explained. "In Atlanta, and Cleveland, and Chicago, where 28 to 45 people die in one weekend from what they thought was heroin and it ends up it was cut with fentanyl, which could be 100 to 1000 times stronger than morphine or heroin."