Fentanyl use on the rise as tribe works to combat addiction

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 03/29/2022, 9:09 PM
Edited: 03/31/2022, 6:30 PM

(OKMULGEE, Okla.) It’s considered to be 80 times as potent as morphine, and it’s on the rise in the heart of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation. 

In its landmark McGirt vs. Oklahoma ruling, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation covers 3.25 million acres from Tulsa to the Canadian River. This land includes all of Okmulgee County, where the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Headquarters is located. 

Officials confirmed the detox program at nearby Hillcrest Hospital Henryetta has seen a spike in fentanyl inpatients this month. 

Experts say any misuse of fentanyl has the potential to cause a fatal overdose, though dying from simply touching it is now widely considered to be a myth.

But it’s not just fentanyl abuse that is a concern. The drug is also used to lace other drugs such as meth, heroin, and cocaine. Sometimes unknowingly to the user. 

We asked the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics for their current data on overdose deaths.

11 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties are on Muscogee (Creek) reservation land: Creek, Hughes, Mayes, McIntosh, Muskogee, Okfuskee, Okmulgee, Rogers, Seminole, Tulsa, and Wagoner.

Of those 11 counties, five saw in increase in overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020. Four counties saw a decrease in overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020. Two counties stayed the same. 

(Data is for Native Americans and Non-Native Americans. Source: OCME; analysis by S. Fletcher, OBN.)  

Tulsa, of which the largest number of Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizens live, has seen a significant spike in overdose deaths the last three years, from 82 in 2018, to 198 in 2019, to 248 in 2020. 

Overdose deaths in Okmulgee County dropped from 11 in 2019 to 9 in 2020. Data for 2021 is not yet available. 

“We do know there was an increase in the number of fentanyl-related overdoses in 2021,” OBN Chief of Staff Angie Woodrow said. “Methamphetamine-related overdoses also continue to increase.” 


Hillcrest Hospital Henryetta said they’ve treated six patients for meth toxicity so far this year, often coupled with fentanyl use. 

Fake prescription pills are on the rise nationwide, many of which are also known to contain fentanyl. Last year, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued their first Public Safety Alert in six years about the fake pills, saying four out of ten DEA-tested fentanyl-laced, fake prescription pills contained at least two milligrams of fentanyl—a lethal dose.

The grand opening of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s new 6,000 square-foot behavioral health clinic in Okmulgee this spring is expected to strengthen recovery of those living with addiction in the community. 

In the meantime, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse locations in Okmulgee, Sapulpa, Coweta, Eufaula, and Okemah.

Director of Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse Kyle Sprangle told us there is a wait if you call that department directly and recommended going through a primary care physician instead. From there, the primary care physician should be able to refer you to treatment such as detox, medication management, and outpatient counseling. 

The Behavioral Health and Substance website lists a Substance Abuse Group and Substance Abuse Prevention Education as additional resources. 

The nation received a 5-year $8 million grant back in 2017 to treat substance abuse, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). The grant was to implement a new program called “Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment,” or “SBIRT,” which focuses on early intervention and prevention. 

Sprangle said the program has resulted in positive, lasting impacts within the community. 

The Muscogee Creek Nation does not currently have an in-patient treatment center for drug addiction and contracts with other facilities throughout the state to meet those needs. The closest in-patient rehab facility to the Muscogee Nation headquarters is for women only and located in Checotah, about 40 minutes away. 

We’re waiting to hear back from Muscogee (Creek) Nation officials as to whether the tribe has plans to build an in-patient substance abuse treatment facility in the future. 

Drug addiction is a problem that affects more than the user and their loved ones. 

Researchers have found many people who commit crime do so to support an addiction to drugs. People are also more likely to commit crimes while under the influence of drugs, including property crimes, traffic crimes, public disorder crimes, trafficking, and even violent crimes. 

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Press Secretary Jason Salsman said their Lighthorse Police Department will soon be undergoing specialized training to deal with the fentanyl threat. 

Congress recently announced $62 million of its next spending bill will go toward improving criminal justice systems in Oklahoma following the McGirt ruling. 

VNN contacted Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Oklahoma Chris Wilson to find out if any of those funds will go toward drug-related programs. We have not yet heard back. 

We also contacted the DEA to find out if McGirt has had any impact on their programs or investigations. They said no and referred us to these federal resources: Just Think Twice, Get Smart About Drugs, and Operation Prevention

Operation Prevention includes the Good Medicine Bundle, a collection of culture-based prevention resources that “use the wisdom of Native practices of wellness combined with the insights of modern science to help Native and non-Native students avoid the dangers of substance misuse.” 

This story has been updated to include additional information from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

“Promised Land” is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Inasmuch Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Democracy Fund. 

Print, digital and broadcast media partners include: CNHI Oklahoma, Cherokee Phoenix, Curbside Chronicle, The Frontier, Griffin Communications, KFOR, KGOU, KOSU, The Lawton Constitution, Moore Monthly, Mvskoke Media, the Native American Journalists Association, NonDoc, The O’Colly, Oklahoma City Free Press, The Oklahoma Eagle, Oklahoma Gazette, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma Watch, Osage News, StateImpact Oklahoma, Tulsa World, Telemundo Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Student Media and VNN.

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