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Religion Helps Oklahoma’s Fight against Illicit Drug Use and Overdoses

December 11, 2017 - 2:57pm CST

By J. Scott Moody and Wendy P. Warcholik

Strong families are the foundation of healthy communities, upward economic mobility, and a robust civil society. Unfortunately, Oklahoma families aren’t flourishing the way they once were. Oklahoma ranks a middling 21st in the 2017 Family Prosperity Index (www.familyprosperity.org).

Political leaders know there are both economic and social costs that harm society, such as dependency, a poor business climate, substance abuse, unemployment, low educational attainment, and crime. But they struggle to craft policies to mitigate these costs in the long run.

Utilizing the Family Prosperity Index, which accounts for both the economic and social behavior of people in a state, legislative, business, and religious leaders can have a crystal-clear view of the most important stories in their state.

One of the most critical stories right now in Oklahoma is that of opioid abuse and overdose deaths. These problems impose a significant economic and social burden on society.

For example, a 2011 study by the National Drug Intelligence Center found that the total cost of U.S. illicit drug use in 2007 was $193 billion. This came in the form of increased crime ($113 billion), health care costs ($11 billion), and lost productivity ($68 billion). This is a conservative estimate because it does not include the recent spike in drug overdose deaths.

Oklahoma’s illicit drug use rate, as a percent of population, has hovered around the national average since 2002. In 2014, Oklahoma had the 35th highest illicit drug use rate at 6.9 percent.

The problem in Oklahoma stems from the composition of illicit drugs: Oklahoma ranks 11th highest in the nation in the use of drugs such as opioids and heroin.

A significant reason for Oklahoma’s relatively low overall illicit drug use rate is the state’s above-average religious attendance. In 2015, 47 percent of Oklahomans attended church at least once per week (tied with Kentucky and Texas for the 11th highest nationally). This is 24 percent above the national average of 38 percent.

The importance of this is shown in Chart 1, which plots the religious weekly attendance rate and the illicit drug use rate for the 50 states (as averaged between 2008 and 2014). The northeastern states dominate the upper left quadrant of the chart where low religiosity is correlated with high drug use, while deep southern states and Utah dominate the lower right quadrant where high religiosity is correlated with low drug use. Oklahoma had above-average church attendance (48 percent vs. 40 percent) and lower-than-average illicit drug use (6.9 percent vs. 7.3 percent).

How frequently one attends church significantly lowers the odds of a person using illicit drugs, wherever they may live. In fact, in 2016 Gallup performed an extensive analysis of their polling data on the rate of marijuana use among various subgroups. Gallup found that “only two percent of weekly churchgoers and seven percent of less frequent attenders say they use marijuana, but this rises to 14 percent of those who seldom or never attend a religious service.”

Additionally, a large and growing body of evidence shows that religion cannot only help prevent people from using illicit drugs, but it plays a strong role in effective treatment programs. Consider the findings of two comprehensive studies.

First, a 2001 study from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found:

God, religion, and spirituality are key factors for many in prevention and treatment of substance abuse and in continuing recovery … Adults who never attend religious services are almost twice as likely to drink, three time likelier to smoke, more than five times likelier to have used an illicit drug other than marijuana, almost seven times likelier to binge drink, and almost eight times likelier to use marijuana than those who attend religious services at least weekly … Teens who never attend religious services are twice as likely to drink, more than twice as likely to smoke, more than three times likelier to use marijuana and binge drink, and almost four times likelier to use illicit drugs than teens who attend religious services at least weekly.

Second, a 2005 study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found:

Religion is an important protective factor against substance abuse and an important support for persons in recovery. Religious people are less likely than others to use drugs and less likely to experience negative drug-related consequences.

As mentioned earlier, Oklahoma policymakers should be concerned about the composition of illicit drug use. Oklahoma’s illicit drug use (other than marijuana) rate, as a percent of population, has exceeded the national average almost every year (this includes deadly opioids and heroin). In 2014, Oklahoma had the 11th highest illicit drug use (other than marijuana) rate, at three percent.

Consequently, as shown in Chart 2, Oklahoma’s drug overdose rate has been significantly above the national average over the 2000 to 2015 time period. While there was a fortunate dip in 2015, Oklahoma’s overdose rate was ranked 20th highest at 0.0192 percent (751 deaths).

Overall, Oklahoma’s above-average church attendance is suppressing overall illicit drug use, which mitigates total economic and social damage. At the same time, Oklahoma’s illicit drug use rate is skewed toward non-marijuana drugs such as opioids and heroin. Unfortunately, this has led to Oklahoma’s higher than average overdose rate. Clearly policymakers should engage Oklahoma’s religious and civic leaders in the ongoing fight against this deadly epidemic.

OCPA research fellow J. Scott Moody (M.A., George Mason University) is a senior fellow at the American Conservative Union. Formerly a senior economist at the Tax Foundation and a senior economist at the Heritage Foundation, he has twice testified before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Moody is the co-creator of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.” His work has appeared in Forbes, CNN Money, State Tax Notes, The Oklahoman, and several other publications.

OCPA research fellow Wendy P. Warcholik (Ph.D., George Mason University) is a senior fellow at the American Conservative Union. She formerly served as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, and was the chief forecasting economist for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. She is a co-creator (with J. Scott Moody) of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.”