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Meth overdoses continue to rise while opioid deaths fall

Deaths from prescription opioids fell in Oklahoma in 2016, but fatal overdoses from methamphetamine kept increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statewide, 769 people died of overdoses in 2017, according to preliminary data from the CDC. If that total stands, 34 fewer Oklahomans will have died of overdoses than in 2016, but the number of deaths from drugs will still be higher than in 2015.

Overdoses caused by opioids other than heroin fell from 421 in 2016 to 357 last year. Deaths from meth and other stimulants increased from 267 to 278. Fatal overdoses from cocaine and heroin also increased.

The prescription monitoring database has helped reduce deaths from legal drugs by alerting doctors when a patient is taking multiple opioids or is prescribed a drug that could cause a dangerous interaction, said Terri White, commissioner for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. White addressed the state's efforts at a forum in September.

More people also are getting medication-assisted treatment, White said, and more first responders are carrying naloxone, which forces a person to keep breathing during an opioid overdose.

While opioids still are the top cause of overdose deaths, meth could overtake them in a few years if trends continue. Since 2015, overdoses from opioids other than heroin decreased 18 percent, while deaths from meth overdoses increased 40 percent. Methamphetamine was the most common “drug of choice” for people receiving state-funded addiction treatment in 2016 and 2017, White said.

Strategies that have worked against opioids won't help with methamphetamine. There is no rescue drug, like naloxone, when a person overdoses on meth. Taking too much can cause heart attacks or make the body's temperature rise to dangerous levels.

Doctors also can't prescribe any medications to decrease the odds of relapse. People who are addicted to opioids can take methadone or buprenorphine, which both satisfy the brain's cravings for opioids without euphoria, if used correctly. Nothing exists to curb cravings for meth.

All addictive drugs that people use recreationally cause the brain to release dopamine, a chemical that tells the brain that a substance or behavior is important and should be repeated, said Mike Beckstead, a scientist who studies the chemical at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. The benefit of dopamine is that it drives people to eat and procreate.

The problem is that drugs cause the brain to release much more dopamine than more benign substances, like food. That causes stronger cravings for the drug, Beckstead said. Meth prompts the brain to release more dopamine than other drugs, which makes it more addictive, he said.

Drugs “cause the release of so much dopamine in the brain that it sends a learning signal that this is now the most important thing in our lives,” he said.

The brain readjusts to normal dopamine levels over time if a person stops using drugs, but it never unlearns its attraction to drugs, so a person remains vulnerable to relapse even years into recovery, Beckstead said. Avoiding people, places and things they associate with drugs helps, but it's not easy to do, he said.

“It's just like trying to forget your mother's first name,” he said. “These aren't things people want to do. It's the drive of the dopamine rush.”

Beckstead and other researchers are studying ways they might be able to “turn down” dopamine signals, making drug cravings easier to ride out, but new treatments are years down the road, he said.

“It's really frustrating that overdoses are going up again,” he said.

The best thing would be to prevent young people from trying drugs in the first place, White said. The part of the brain that handles decision making isn't fully developed until a person's mid-20s, and immature brains are at a higher risk of addiction if exposed to substances, she said.

“We have to figure out how to stop kids from becoming addicted” before overdose numbers will go down, she said.

Causes of overdoses in Oklahoma


Opioids other than heroin

2015: 436

2016: 421

2017: 357

Methamphetamine and stimulants

2015: 199

2016: 267

2017: 278


2015: 32

2016: 48

2017: 60


2015: 30

2016: 30

2017: 44

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›