Thousands Of Oklahomans Face Pain Pill Addiction
UNDATED -- Former Oklahoma State University basketball coach Sean Sutton is one of thousands of Oklahomans fighting an addiction to prescription pain killers.
Just recently, the assistant police chief of Catoosa was arrested and there have been preachers, teachers and lawyers caught with pills. Police say the problem has reached epidemic proportions.
Last year, 125 million pain pills were dispensed in Oklahoma. The population of the entire state is only 3.5 million – meaning 35 pills for every man, woman and child ever year.
Police say the three most abused prescriptions in the Tulsa area are hydrocodone, oxycodone and Xanax. Addicts can take dozens of pills a day - numbers that sound shocking, but narcotics officers say nothing surprises them anymore.
"I've actually interviewed several people who take 100 a day, which is incredible," said Officer Joe Gho of the Tulsa Police Department.
"The first time I heard that, it shocked me. Not anymore. I interview people constantly who tell me the same thing."
The pain killers often start as a legitimate need, but then people build up a tolerance, so they need more and more to get their fix.
"Basically, they're good people but they get caught up in this addiction and don't know how to stop it," Gho said.
Addicts end up in legal trouble - like Sean Sutton - when they can longer get their pills legitimately from doctors, hospitals or pharmacies. Then they look for illegal ways to get them.
"Buying it off the streets, from friends, scamming doctors, doctor shopping," Gho said of the illegal ways to obtain pain pills.
That's why there has been a monster increase in the number of people robbing pharmacies - not for the money, but for painkillers. People risk 20 years in prison because the pull of the addiction is so strong.
Police say the state pharmacy database is helping them, and doctors and pharmacies keep track of those buying ridiculously high amounts of these narcotics. Often, the people who get hooked are still able to do their jobs and handle their families, so they manage to keep their secret hidden.
"They'll do everything they can to hide it. I routinely interview people who say their husband doesn't even know; everyone's going to be shocked," said Tulsa Police Officer Joe Gho. "Every profession is affected. You can't just believe it. It's amazing who it affects."
Police say a lot of people learn how to buy their drugs illegally when they're actually in rehab with other addicts. People who become addicted to these pain killers often go to rehab and relapse a few times before kicking the habit.