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Advocates say more is needed to combat Oklahoma's addiction scourge

Posted June 20

— By Dale Denwalt Capitol Bureau ddenwalt@oklahoman.com Advocates gave the Oklahoma Legislature a mediocre score on addressing the state's addiction scourge. While there were some victories in this year's session, failure of several criminal justice reform measures to make it to the governor's desk was a huge loss, they said. Those bills were, in part, meant to keep as many nonviolent drug abusers out of prison as possible. "To be honest, a lot of the things that would help people with addiction were the criminal justice bills," said Julia Jernigan, executive director of the Oklahoma Behavioral Health Association. Specifically, there was Senate Bill 689, which would give courts more options to divert people away from prison and into treatment and supervision programs. That measure and three others were set aside in the last week of the legislative session and can't be considered again until next year, despite public pleas from Gov. Mary Fallin and other supporters. "There were some good things that were passed, but there is always more to be done," Jernigan said. Senate Bill 229 lets juveniles be assigned to assisted outpatient treatment, which is used to let the court system follow up and intervene with people who are ordered into treatment because of a mental illness diagnosis and a history of refusing medication or treatment compliance. Mental health problems are often linked with addiction. The law signed by the governor removes the minimum age for which supervision is available. "Oftentimes in our field, we see a lot of people showing signs of mental illness earlier and there's not something that can catch them," Jernigan said. "The main thing is they have a history of a lack of compliance with treatment; this is going to be able to help." The bill's author, state Sen. A.J. Griffin, said it helps meet the children's needs rather than plugging them in to meet the system's needs. Without help and earlier intervention, they could wind up in jail or dead. "That's why working with juveniles is extremely important," said Griffin, R-Guthrie. Lawmakers also approved the creation of the Oklahoma Commission on Opioid Abuse, which will study and propose ways to combat addiction to drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone. Attorney General Mike Hunter said 2,684 people in Oklahoma have died from opioid drugs over the past three years. "Oklahoma is currently in the midst of an opioid abuse epidemic that is reaching a crisis level," Hunter said in April, when legislation was introduced to create the commission. "This commission will chart a path forward by looking at every avenue to save lives." Two bills expand the availability and use of naloxone, a fast-acting drug that counters the fatal effects of opioid overdoses. House Bill 2039 gives pharmacists the ability to prescribe naloxone without a dispensing protocol, and existing law already allows people to buy the drug without a prescription. Senate Bill 77 adds forensic lab personnel with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to the list of first responders authorized to administer naloxone. Lawmakers also added new drugs to the list of illegal substances and removed the requirement that someone have a two-year history of addiction before receiving opioid substitution treatment, like methadone. Jernigan said that even if someone wants to counter their addiction with residential treatment, they can't get in right away. That's just one statistic that she and other advocates want to improve. "I would love to see the day when there's not a waiting list and people can get in if they need to get in," she said. Griffin was disappointed that one of her bills failed for the third year in a row. She calls Senate Bill 226 a "good Samaritan" law because it prevents a person's arrest and prosecution on drug charges if they've just called 911 to report an overdose. The bill never got a hearing. "I'll keep trying," Griffin said. "We still have a long way to go as a state, but we're certainly moving in the right direction."

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