Governor Mary Fallin on How To Solve Oklahoma's Prescription Drug Epidemic

By John Lavitt 11/08/16

"One of the biggest barriers to success for people who have had felonies was to check a box on a job application that you’ve been convicted of a felony. We took that off our employment applications for the state of Oklahoma."

Governor Mary Fallin
Governor Fallin advocates treatment over incarceration.

As communities throughout the country struggle to find solutions for prescription drug misuse and growing opioid-related overdoses, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has been one of the most proactive Republican leaders to address the crisis in her state. Governor Fallin has consistently championed drug courts and alternative sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders, such as "Women in Recovery," a diversion program that provides services and treatment for Tulsa women with alcohol and drug addictions. She has also worked to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for first and second drug offenses and reduce maximum sentences, earning her praise from groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

In your 2015 State of the State, you pointed out, “Oklahoma ranks at the top of the nation for prescription drug abuse.” Why do you think this is the case, and how can this problem be effectively addressed?

Oklahoma has had a high rate of prescription drug abuse, and the rate of people in Oklahoma who die from overdoses from prescription pain pills stands at about 12 deaths per 100,000 people. Between the years 2007 and 2013, we know that 3 out of 4 unintentional poisoning deaths happened because of prescription drugs. As governor, I saw that as a problem facing the state, and I wanted to bring more public education attention to the issue. I also wanted to encourage the state legislature, along with our substance abuse and mental health agency, to try to address unintentional poisoning deaths from prescription pain pills.

Frankly, we want to encourage people to come forward that need help with addiction issues. A key part of such encouragement is education programs that raise awareness in the general public. Oklahomans need to see that there not only is a problem, but a solution as well.

Your latest state budgets are highlighted by what you describe as “performance informed budgeting” that focuses on dedicating funds to properly address the real problems of Oklahomans, like prescription drug abuse and the overdose epidemic. Are you breaking ranks with conservatives by dealing with these problems in a manner that focuses on treatment and recovery as opposed to enforcement?

There’s a great movement going on throughout our nation within both political parties, and I am very proud of Republican efforts to work on the substance abuse and addiction issue. I had the opportunity to speak with two of my fellow Republican governors on a panel about the great work being done in Kentucky and Georgia, along with Oklahoma, on how to effectively address prescription drug abuse and recovery efforts, particularly the use of drug courts and mental health courts. We are also working on prescription drug monitoring programs to help stop what we call "doctor shopping" in our various states.

I believe it’s a bipartisan issue that all people are interested in addressing. Addiction is not an issue that strikes one political party or persuasion. Of course, it has no boundaries as it relates to income, race, or socioeconomic standards of living because it can affect everyone. It’s an issue I believe the whole nation needs to be talking about because it can ruin lives, it can keep people out of employment, and it leads to terrible outcomes for people like a fall into criminal behavior and prison.

One of the reasons why I highlighted this problem when presenting my performance informed budgeting was to set goals; specific measurable things that we could accomplish in the state. We needed to be able to determine if the money that we were spending on certain programs actually achieve the outcomes that we want, as opposed to the outcomes that we hope we might get.

In the 2015 State of the State, you explained how, “Many of our current inmates are first time, non-violent offenders with drug abuse and alcohol problems… It costs the state around $19,000 a year to house an inmate, but only $5,000 a year to send an addict through drug court and on to treatment. In addition to being less expensive, it’s also more effective; the recidivism rate for offenders sent to drug court is just one-fourth of the rate for those sent to prison.”

This would appear to be a very moderate perspective on addiction in the context of the penal system. Are you taking the higher ground to make sure your constituents are well-served?

One of the things that I believe is that a public official should be smart on crime. As I mentioned, a lot of our non-violent offenders in our penal systems have had some kind of conviction related to drug abuse or alcohol abuse. It is very costly to our state. As you pointed out, it is costly from a financial standpoint because it costs our state $19,000 a year to house an inmate. Beyond that cost, while that person is incarcerated, they are not available to the workforce, they are not available to support their family, and they lose time from their lives that could be productive. We know that we can have successful programs with our drug courts and with our treatment programs in our state. We just feel that it’s good public policy for our state.

Every time I speak to a big audience about substance abuse or correction related issues, I always ask the question, “Does anyone in the room not know anyone who has a substance abuse or addiction issue, whether it’s been a colleague or a family member or someone close to them in their community?” Nobody ever raises their hand. In other words, everyone knows someone who’s had some type of substance abuse issue. In response, what I’m trying to address is what is the best way to divert people from going into the system in the first place? How can we get them the help they need for their addiction issues? We need to understand that addiction doesn’t touch just that individual. It touches family members, it touches people’s finances, and it certainly has a negative effect on our expenses as a state. We can address it better by looking at treatment.

Certainly, we will keep those who are violent and are a potential threat to the community in prison. They should be incarcerated. Non-violent offenders who have a true substance abuse or addiction issue, however, need to be given access to treatment and help. This is a smarter way that we can be smarter on crime, helping people and saving money at the same time.

Do you agree with Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that addiction is a brain disease? Does this belief help reduce the stigma of drug addiction?

Yes, I do. The experts that I have talked to, both here in Oklahoma and nationally, have said that addiction is a brain disease that can be overcome in most cases. There are some cases where it’s very, very tough. I know we need to change our public understanding and perception of addiction and mental health issues. We need to focus on how we can help people be healthy and functional in their family lives, in their communities, and certainly in the workplace.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.