Alarm Bells Sound In Oklahoma Meth Epidemic

Holding meth

When we think of the drug problem in the U.S., the first thing we almost always think of is the opiate epidemic. The opiate epidemic usually takes the spotlight. And not without good reason. The majority of all drug deaths every year are at the hands of opiates.

But we err on the side of negligence when we focus so much attention on one drug problem that we don’t sufficiently address the problems with other drugs. Case in point, drug deaths involving meth are rising fast, due mostly to far more potent strains of the drug and a lack of sufficient public effort to help those who are addicted to it.

The meth of today is much more likely to be lethal, and people are dying from it. But unfortunately, because meth is not an opiate, it’s not as easy to harness federal funds to help meth addicts. This is the downside to going all for broke trying to fix the one drug problem of opiates. Other drug problems crop up behind our backs.

What can we do about the meth crisis? And how can we address the growing meth problem without slowing or stalling our efforts to tackle the opiate problem?

A Growing Crisis

The New York Times reported on this issue, looking into the growing meth crisis in the state of Oklahoma. According to their article, meth abuse has gotten so out of hand in Oklahoma that deaths from meth-related complications have now exceeded deaths from all types of opiates combined.

And this isn’t the pseudoephedrine meth that first came on the scene in the 1990s and the early-2000s. This (for the most part) is not the home-made, home-cooked “Breaking Bad” meth that many of us think of when we think of methamphetamine. The meth of today is far more potent and far more dangerous.

“It’s way different from the meth people were using 20 years ago. It’s like they were drinking Mountain Dew, and now they are injecting Red Bull.”

According to the NYT article, the meth of today is an extremely potent version of the drug. It is a meth strain that is made in clandestine drug labs by Mexican cartels. Dr. Jason Beaman at the Center for Health Sciences at Oklahoma State University had a fitting analogy. “It’s way different from the meth people were using 20 years ago. It’s like they were drinking Mountain Dew, and now they are injecting Red Bull.”

Young adults using meth

And it’s not just Oklahoma that has been hit by this new meth scourge. There are 35 states which report overdose deaths to the federal government. In 14 of them, meth is now involved in more deaths than fentanyl. That is huge. Fentanyl was and is Public Enemy Number One on the drug scene. Fentanyl is one of the most potent, lethal drugs to date. Fentanyl killed thousands of people just in the last year alone. So if 14 states are now experiencing more deaths from meth than from fentanyl, that’s very concerning.

Quoting the New York Times, “Provisional data from the C.D.C. shows there were about 13,000 deaths involving meth nationwide in 2018, more than twice as many as in 2015. That is still far fewer than opioid deaths overall, which passed 47,000, but the pace is accelerating while opioid fatalities have flattened. From May 2018 to May 2019, there were 24.6 percent more deaths involving meth and other drugs in its class than in the previous year, compared with 9.4 percent more deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.”

The Beginning of Another Public Health Emergency

We can understand the concern here. Meth might not be the leading killer right now. But if current trends continue, meth overdose deaths could claim more lives than opiates. We could very well be facing an entirely new public health emergency, this one with the potential of being even more traumatic and horrible than the opiate epidemic we’ve dealt with so far.

And it gets worse.

Unlike an opiate overdose, which we can treat with naloxone (an emergency overdose reversal medicine), there is no way to reverse the effects of a meth overdose.

This added concern is further exacerbated by the fact that, on the federal level, meth is still not considered as deadly or as worrisome as opiates.

But that’s all changing. Now more than ever, we need to recognize that meth is just as dangerous and just as lethal as opiates.

If the meth trend continues, we could be facing non-linear events. We could face events in which our inability to treat meth overdoses and our so-far unwillingness to treat meth addiction with as much tenacity as we treat opiate addiction could lead to a series of catastrophic events. There is simply no predicting the kind of crisis that could occur if we do not get the meth problem under control now.

How Do We Tackle a Drug Crisis?

The underlying problem with the drug addiction epidemic, ever since it took off in the late-1990s, is that we simply are not doing enough to tackle this issue. The crazy thing is, we know exactly what we need to do to combat the problem. There is no mystery. We know that prevention and education work to stop people from ever using drugs. We know that residential treatment works in helping people break free from their drug habits.

The issue is that not enough effort is being taken in these areas. What we need to realize is that the drug problem is the responsibility of all of us to address. We can only improve as a nation to the degree that we can improve as a society. And we can only improve as a society to the degree that we can improve as individual communities and individual families. We need to realize that helping addicts get better is the right thing to do ethically, and it’s the right thing to do for our cities, for our communities, and for ourselves.

If you know someone who is struggling with a drug problem, make sure they get help as soon as possible. Drug use (and not just opiate use) is a life or death matter. The quicker we all work together to address this new problem, the more lives will be saved.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.