Tracking the Opioid Epidemic Back to Its Source

The death-toll of the opioid epidemic continues to set sinister records. For the third year in a row, Maine is looking at an all-time-high for overdose deaths. In 2016, the rural state saw more than one death a day. In Vermont, roughly 1 out of every 100 citizens is in treatment for opioid abuse.

Ultimately, every death is the result of drugs in the hands of someone who should not be using them. So how did these drugs get there? They didn’t exactly fall from the sky….

Should We Be Watching the Border?

Opioid-trafficking, in the popular imagination, involves midnight-runs of illicit substances, through tunnels and sketchy backroom deals. Part of that might be true to a degree. On the black-market, fentanyl, a powerful narcotic which dealers mix into heroin, is sowing devastation and intensifying the opioid epidemic.

In April, Donald Trump tweeted the rationale behind building a wall along the US and Mexico:

“The Wall is a very important tool in stopping drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth (and many others)! If the wall is not built, which it will be, the drug situation will NEVER be fixed the way it should be!”

There is some truth to the idea that the vast majority of illegal narcotics enter the United States from its southern border. At the same time, it is also known that nearly 80 percent of heroin users said they used prescription opioids before they were using heroin. That means the majority of the addictions fueling the drug-trade begin with a legal prescription.

Fixing the “drug situation” is an immediate priority for everyone in America. Mr. Trump’s diagnosis of this situation, however, ignores the true source of the problem.

More Misplaced Punishment

On May 10, Attorney General Jefferson Sessions issued memorandum reestablishing mandatory minimum sentences. For small crimes, many people who need help will instead be foisted on tax-payers and sent to prison. This has a lot of people concerned that we are heading in the wrong direction.

Providing narcotics to someone with an addiction is a terrible thing. These are criminals who enable disease for financial gain. They need to be stopped.

But are individual heroin pushers really fueling the crisis? Going after the small-time dealers and locking up first-time offenders is going to let the real criminals escape justice. It’s like treating the symptom without treating the sickness.

Deaths from Illegal Drugs Begin with a Legal Prescription

In the 1990s, opioid manufacturers launched a secret campaign to sway the medical community toward favoring opioids for chronic pain. Prior to this marketing push, the consensus was opioids were addictive, powerful and only sensible to use in worst-case scenarios.

Now, it is commonplace for people to use these powerful prescription painkillers to “manage” their pain. This change in prescription habits has been marked by a staggering change in the nature of addiction. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH):

“Of people entering treatment for heroin addiction who began abusing opioids in the 1960s, more than 80 percent started with heroin.

Of those who began abusing opioids in the 2000s, 75 percent reported that their first opioid was a prescription drug.”

If more people are dying from heroin, and prescription drugs are clearly getting people hooked, wouldn’t it make sense to start at the root of the problem?

The Real Villains We Need to Be Talking About

Over the past few months, a number of counties have sued pharmaceutical companies for damages caused by their deliberately deceptive marketing tactics. As information has come to light, it has become ridiculously clear how companies like Purdue, Teva, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen and Endo manipulated doctors and patients in order to increase their sales of opioids.

“It’s no secret that this county and most of the United States are in the midst of an opiate epidemic,” District Attorney David M. Hoovler wrote in a letter to officials in Orange County, New York. Hoovler is one of the growing number of people convinced that the epidemic is a direct result of corporate greed. Urging Orange County to throw their weight behind this new wave of litigation, Hoovler wrote:

“Many sources suggest that the opiate crisis is a result of aggressive and misleading advertising and marketing that the opiate manufacturers used in order to create a larger market for their products. . . I think we owe it to our citizens to join in this litigation, in an effort to protect against future cases of addiction and to recoup some of the significant funds that the County has expended in combating the opioid epidemic.”

Just two short weeks ago, Simmons Hanly Conroy officially filed a lawsuit on behalf of Orange County, NY against pharmaceutical companies over aggressive and fraudulent marketing tactics that contributed the county’s growing opioid crisis. The firm has also filed suits on behalf of three other New York counties – Suffolk, Broom and Eerie.

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, people have known that opioids are addictive. Were it not for the deliberate and deceitful marketing practices of Big Pharma, the astronomical numbers of powerful pain medications would never have been manufactured. These pills would never have ended up in the hands of someone who would later die from heroin.

Prescription drug abuse is the clear cause of the epidemic, and, accordingly, many rational observers have stopped thinking that walls and mandatory sentences are going to accomplish anything.

Communities can, however, join together and hold Big Pharma accountable for its shameful practices in the wake of destruction they have caused. How many more families will have to pick up the broken pieces while pharmaceutical executives toast a glass of champagne to another solid quarter of sales?

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