The dire opioid crisis that has been devastating the United States for years has become a true “public health emergency.” That was how President Donald J. Trump described it in a memorandum on Oct. 26 which echoed a 2015 report from the Drug Enforcement Administration, which read, “Overdose deaths, particularly from prescription drugs and heroin, have reached epidemic levels.” In 2015, 53,000 people died from overdoses, mainly from opiates. In 2016, that figure increased by 21 percent, leading to 64,000 victims. As German Lopez reported in Vox, this is more than the total number of soldiers killed in Iraq and Vietnam combined.
If the heroin trade is experiencing a disturbing resurgence, then the uncontrolled abuse of painkillers is extremely alarming. As Hector Abad Faciolince wrote in an article for Internazionale, “The new drug addicts and overdose death cases in the United States, most of them white people, fall into the habit because doctors prescribe ‘painkillers.’ These are very strong analgesics; synthetic opiates, much more powerful than heroin and morphine.”
The opiates that kill, writes Faciolince, are “legal drugs” like oxycodone, fentanyl or Vicodin, later resold on the internet as heroin. “Then there is another even more deadly synthetic drug, carfentanyl, which is used as a sedative for elephants, and which is a hundred times more powerful than fentanyl. A few specks of carfentanyl powder on the tongue can kill a human being.”
Opioids, a National Emergency
In the United States, where 80 percent of the world’s opioids are consumed, overdose deaths have now surpassed those caused by car accidents and shootings, reports CNN. Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, has declared a state of emergency and launched a $50 million plan to prevent drug trafficking and fight against opioid dependence.
The Obama administration, which proposed the 21st Century Cures Act in December 2016, saw a rare bipartisan Senate majority (94-5) favoring the allocation of $1 billion in the fight against drug addiction. President Trump approved an additional loan of $485 million in 2017, and over the last few years, the stance of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Drug Czar of the Executive Office of the White House, has been strengthened. Currently, the position is held by Richard J. Baum, a former member of the United Nations drug study group.
At the Root of the Opioid Crisis Is the Role of the Pharmaceutical Companies
Big Pharma bears primary responsibility for the dynamics that led to the official sanction of opiates and the prevailing dire crisis. As Ross Barkan wrote in The Guardian, “We know that this crisis was almost nonexistent before Purdue Pharma dropped OxyContin on the market. Led by Purdue Pharma, major pharmaceutical companies engineered a campaign to persuade doctors and patients,” convincing them to underestimate opioid risks and overestimate their therapeutic roles.*
Big Pharma’s lobbying in the United States Congress has been continuous and aggressive since the mid-1990s. Barkan cites the thorny case of Joe Kennedy III, Democratic representative of Massachusetts, who, according to reports from The Intercept, received constant pressure to draft legislation against entrusting the Centers for Disease Control with tools that would discourage opioid dependency in people, exploiting his position as a declared progressive.
What is certainly not a positive presentation for the 37-year-old heir to the most famous American political dynasty (who recently criticized the president during the State of the Union address) reveals at the same time how the opiate crisis does is not based only in the weakness within American society; a political and economic will drove the dangerous official sanction of medications and painkillers that, distributed uncontrollably, have led to serious upheaval within the country. To stop this American carnage, the American massacre attributable to legal and illegal drugs, the federal government and the states will have to face the question with all the seriousness required of a true national security emergency.
*Editor’s note: The full quote was “We know this crisis was entirely manufactured, almost nonexistent before Purdue Pharma dropped OxyContin on the market in 1995. Led by Purdue Pharma, major pharmaceutical companies engineered a campaign to persuade doctors and patient groups to downplay the addiction risk of opioid painkillers while exaggerating their role in the treatment of a wide variety of ailments.”