Oklahoma law enforcement officials have a significant new weapon in efforts to crack down on prescription drug abuse, Gov. Brad Henry announced today.

Under a statewide database program to be administered by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, authorities will track instances in which substance abusers try to fraudulently acquire prescription drugs. The Comprehensive Oklahoma Narcotic Tracking and Regulation On Line (CONTROL) project will let doctors and pharmacists check whether a person has been "doctor shopping" to obtain prescriptions that he or she subsequently has filled at multiple pharmacies.

"The CONTROL project is a vital tool that will help crack down on prescription drug abuse and help get desperately needed treatment for people suffering addiction," Gov. Henry said at a state Capitol news conference.

"While our state has made tremendous strides forward in combating substance abuse -- particularly when it comes to the epidemic of methamphetamine use -- we cannot afford to neglect other fronts in the drug war. This monitoring program is certain to prove invaluable in stemming the ever-growing problem of prescription drug abuse."

The White House Drug Czar's Office indicates that prescription drugs are the second most prevalent drug problem in the nation, ranking behind marijuana. The OBN estimates that some 87,000 Oklahomans are addicted to prescription drugs, a figure that has risen steadily over recent years.

Such addiction has had a deadly toll. There were 522 prescription-related deaths in Oklahoma last year, as compared to 268 in 2000. Because only a fraction of deaths results in autopsies, drug enforcement officials say the actual number of prescription-related deaths might be higher.

"Prescription drug abuse affects over 80,000 people in Oklahoma, diminishing quality of life and creating an adverse impact upon their families, workplaces, and social environments," said Dr. John Duncan, chief agent of the OBN's Diversion Section.

"The CONTROL project will enable medical professionals to identify drug seekers at the outset of the problem and intervene before these individuals are injured through chronic drug abuse. The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, working closely with the Legislature and the Governor's Office, has designed a computerized system that will track controlled drug prescriptions and provide data to medical professionals, regulatory boards, and drug enforcement throughout the State. We anticipate this effort will greatly reduce prescription drug abuse in Oklahoma."

Under CONTROL, physicians and pharmacists will be able to check a patient's prescription history from hospitals, clinics and pharmacies to deduce whether that person is "doctor shopping" for drugs. The entire process, which includes safeguards to prevent abuse, will take only a matter of minutes.

The program goes online July 1 and is entirely funded through federal grants.

CONTROL is also likely to improve medical treatment in Oklahoma hospitals' emergency rooms. Nationally, prescription-related visits to ERs have risen by 163 percent since 1995.

In addition, many ER visits are from patients feigning illnesses to seek prescription drugs. Dr. Bruce Storms, immediate past-president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association (OSMA) and an emergency room physician in Chickasha, said drug-seeking patients cause additional burdens for an already taxed healthcare system.

"Drug-seeking behavior by patients addicted to prescription drugs is very hard to detect and to stop for a variety of reasons," Dr. Storms said.

"It is a huge problem for physicians, especially those who work in hospital emergency rooms, where many patients seeking prescriptions for narcotics show up hoping to get a quick-fix. The OSMA applauds any efforts to try to identify and help people who are addicted and to alleviate the over-utilization of emergency rooms so that people with true emergencies can get care."

His sentiments were echoed by OSMA President Dr. David S. Russell.

"People who are addicted to prescription drugs can become extremely creative and deceptive in their efforts to obtain prescriptions," Dr. Russell said. "The OSMA applauds any efforts that will help physicians identify patients with substance abuse problems and will assist in attaining needed treatment for those patients."

The tracking program was established by Senate Bill 1526, which Gov. Henry signed into law in 2004. That measure was authored by state Sen. Dick Wilkerson (D-Atwood) and Rep. Paul Roan (D-Tishomingo).