Governor Mary Fallin on How To Solve Oklahoma's Prescription Drug Epidemic - Page 2

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."

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Governor Mary Fallin
Governor Fallin advocates treatment over incarceration.

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In the 2011 State of the State, you said, “I'm continuing to offer my full support to programs like "Women in Recovery" and other initiatives that address substance abuse, prevent incarceration, and allow more families to stay together. By fighting the hold that substance abuse has on our communities, we can make Oklahoma healthier and safer.”

The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) seems to be in line with what you have been recommending for years as well as an example of what you describe as “performance informed budgeting” that saves money by focusing on treating the problem.

Don’t your state policies mirror CARA? If recovery and support is the key, why do you think Republicans on a federal level have resisted the funding to make this law viable?

I can’t speak for Congress because all I can speak for is the state of Oklahoma. We do know that programs like "Women in Recovery" have been a critical piece in helping to solve a very complicated issue that’s plagued our state for over 20 years. I believe our legislators in the state of Oklahoma, as they have become more informed and as we have talked more publicly about addiction and substance abuse, have worked hard to make some strategic policy changes that reflect this awareness.

We do have broader use of drug courts, and we do use more community sentencing, giving our judges and our district attorneys more discretion when it comes to sentencing. We have passed laws to enact prescription drug monitoring bills. We are working on reducing doctor shopping, preventing people that have addiction problems from finding doctors that will prescribe pain medication. We also have cracked down on doctors that overprescribe, running pills mills in their facilities. We have prosecuted those doctors that criminally abuse their position. We have installed prescription drop boxes throughout our state to dispose unused or unneeded pain pills. We have a great prescription drop box program with places like Walgreens. We have awareness programs like "Take As Prescribed" when it comes to medications to avoid misuse and abuse. We have worked locally in our state to help reduce drug abuse through these new initiatives and programs.

I understand that some of these initiatives and programs may mirror what they are trying to do federally with the CARA act, but they are separate from any federal legislation. Hopefully, they will look at what is working on a state level and see that states can be good models for the replication of successful policies that work in practice.

When it came to the shooting of an unarmed Terence Crutcher by a Tulsa police officer that resulted in a manslaughter charge, you tweeted, “Our thoughts and prayers should be with the Terence Crutcher family as they struggle to find answers during this difficult time.” 

How much did perceptions of the drug epidemic by police officers contribute to this shooting? Do criminal actions fueled by addiction lead to a greater bias in police officers against minorities?

I can’t speak for what’s in the minds of police officers, but certainly I think our police officers should be trained and they are trained on substance abuse issues, the challenges presented by addicted people, and the challenges of people with mental health issues. If our law enforcement are trained to be able to recognize those problems, then it keeps the officers safe, but it also helps them make good decisions. Such good decisions are needed when they come upon someone who might be high on some type of prescription medication or other substance that could cause them to be a danger not only to themselves, but to the public as well.

On September 13, you announced on Twitter the OK Veterans Pilot Program to “help develop a comprehensive healthcare system for our vets.” Addiction and alcoholism are huge problems for veterans, often contributing to frighteningly high suicide rates. Does your pilot program address this problem?

Absolutely. We know that our veterans should be honored, but we also know that they may need help when they return back from their service. Addictions issues and alcoholism can be a big problem for veterans, along with suicide. We have worked really hard with our veterans’ professionals to address these concerns. In Oklahoma, we even have a Veterans Court so if someone is arrested for substance abuse issues or other non-violent issues, we can help them get the treatment and services that they need. We are making sure that we have a better coordination of care that focuses on what is the true problem with the veteran, and helps them.

You recently signed a Ban the Box executive order that required all state agencies to eliminate questions about felony convictions from employment applications. One in 12 Oklahomans is a convicted felon, with more than 55,000 people currently in prison or under supervision of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, most for nonviolent offenses.

You said in a statement, “Employment after a felony conviction is always a challenge, but the ability to gain employment is a critical and necessary component in reducing recidivism and for those individuals to lead productive and successful lives. Thus, we should remove unnecessary barriers to employment opportunities for Oklahomans with felony convictions.”

Is this choice also connected with your policies to help drug addicts convicted of non-violent drug related crimes get back on their feet? Do you truly believe in second chances and the miracle of recovery?

I am a believer in helping people get a second chance in their lives if they’re willing to take the steps they need to take to get clean and the help that they need for addiction recovery. One of the things that we can do as a state is to give them the ability to find employment. As we know, 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.

When a person is going through the interview process, they won’t be automatically screened out and have their resume thrown in a trashcan before they ever get to interview. If the interviewer later asks them if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony, then they’ll have the opportunity to explain what happened and what’s changed in their life that will now make them a good employee. We believe that helping a person find a job will help them recover quicker and help them become a more productive citizen in our state.

Marijuana legalization is all the rage across the country, both in relation to medical marijuana and recreational use as well. You have said about medical marijuana, “I just don't see that it provides a substantial benefit to the people of Oklahoma.” Given the additional taxes being reaped by other states, have you ever questioned this decision?

No, not in the least. I would never trade off money for the possibility of someone becoming addicted to any type of substance, then later moving on to hardcore heroin or prescription drugs. I do not support legalizing marijuana. Now that being said, I have signed laws into place that allow the use of cannabidiol oil for children that have seizures and for adults that have certain conditions that cannabidiol oil can be helpful. But cannabidiol is different from medical marijuana. As far as just having recreational marijuana or marijuana for medical purposes, I don’t support that.

When signing House Bill 1948 in 2015 that set up the Prescription Drug Monitoring program, you said, “Sadly, prescription drug abuse in Oklahoma is nothing short of an epidemic … There are more fatal overdoses in Oklahoma involving hydrocodone or oxycodone than alcohol and all illegal drugs combined. In 2013, there were more overdose deaths than fatal car accidents. As a state, we need to take a stand and say ‘enough is enough’.”

This is a very open-minded approach to the problem for a traditionally conservative Republican. In contrast, after Ted Cruz discussed his sister’s death due to a prescription opioid overdose in a New Hampshire meeting during primary season, he was asked how he would fix the problem. Despite the legacy of his sister’s death, his reply, following in the footsteps of eventual presidential candidate Donald Trump, was, “I would build a wall.”

Do you think Donald Trump would agree with your 2015 State of the State policy statement on, “a prescription drug monitoring bill that cracks down on the practice of ‘doctor shopping’ and ensures we aren’t prescribing narcotics to addicts” as a proper approach to the drug crisis?

I don’t know because I haven’t talked to him about this particular issue. I can’t comment on the positions of the candidate. I can tell you, however, what’s worked in Oklahoma. The prescription monitoring law in our state has cut down on doctor shopping. It has helped us raise awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse in our state, and it has saved lives in Oklahoma. I know it’s made a big impact.

One of the other things I forgot to mention that we have done in our state is we have made naloxone available in our state, both in the hands of first responders and in pharmacies, and that has helped save the lives of people who have overdosed. We established a training program to teach our police and first responders how to use naloxone. We’ve had nearly 1,800 people trained statewide since 2014 and it has saved many lives. Since we have pharmacies carrying naloxone as well, we’ve given access to this lifesaving drug to the people that really need it. This is a step that makes sense for all people and is part of the national movement to address this drug crisis that I mentioned earlier. By stopping overdoses, we save lives—and saving lives is always for the best.

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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 with his beautiful wife, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.