The headlines scream about an "opioid crisis" that rages across American. In recent years, the annual death toll from overdose has climbed to nearly 20,000 deaths. According to the New York Times, it now kills more of us under age 50 than any other cause.
But wait. Haven't we had a monstrous drug disaster for decades? What's all the commotion about now?
The difference is, of course, that the new epidemic is caused basically by a glut of prescription drugs like fentanyl and oxycodone that start as treatment for pain and end up as addictions. In large part they become the abuse of choice for the more privileged classes who have taken the respectable root by going to the doctor for help and finding ways to game the system. It wouldn't be possible without enabling by doctors (opioid prescriptions rocketed from 76 million in 1991 to 207 million in 2013) and blind eyes of drug companies. Despite a pipeline of eyes and ears along that delivery route, there are virtually no whistle blowers, no one fingering good old doc like the mother in the hood informs on the drug king.
The older scourge was mostly confined to people at the margins of society who got supplied by street dealers. Instead of the manufactured pain killers, they have generally had to settle for the opiates and hallucinogens from the underground. The response to them has been the fierce but futile Drug War whose main purpose has been to fund a whole new police industry funded generously by the government. The drug warriors depend on the fruitless "war" to underwrite a comfortable life with perks. There's no room for success in that scenario. The one requirement is that regular early morning raids swoop down on tenement houses with media taking pictures of "perps" being led to the cruisers in order to reinforce the stereotypes of "drug dealers" as a danger to hearth and home. It primes the funding pump.
But both the suppliers and the users of the opioid collusion receive much more polite attention that is more concerned with the health of the addicted than a crackdown on the providers. By itself, I'm glad for any measure of caring for the afflicted. The disparity between treatment of the two classes is the troublesome part, particularly the failure to hold medical and drug company pushers to get away with ruining human lives for their own profit.
Opioids, an amalgam of opiate and synthetic elements, were created for the best of purposes. Except for opiates themselves like morphine, that were highly risky, nothing was available to ease wrenching pain. Brilliant teams of scientists invented the new class of powerful drugs and, on the face of it, they seem to have been handled responsibly for decades. That ended, however, when pills became widely available and prescriptions, real or fake, went on and on and on.
My theory is that the culprit was corporate greed. Doctors signing the slips while neglecting oversight, partnering with drug companies to swell volume and profits, middle agents getting them into the hands of abusers. Integrity is always harder to sustain when nobody's watching the store and the benefits become expected supplements to everyday like. Nobody asks questions or acknowledges the glad-handing; it simply exists as a professional courtesy. Especially when it's protected. There appears to be no equivalent legal assault on those who signed off on this epidemic.
It's almost as if our drug companies saw the foreign drug cartels soaking up enormous fortunes and felt the competitive itch. While the public linked "foreign" and "drugs" the American companies could operate under the radar. They were legitimate businesses, weren't they, horrendously overpriced but hardly in the foreign criminal category.
The mixed-motive theme on the American side is replete within the human experience. Good motives become corrupted by the originator or others to whom it's entrusted. Alfred Nobel wanted his invention of dynamite to facilitate development and was horrified to see it become a weapon of war. The Nobel Prizes were a gesture of penance. Jesus entered the holy of holies, the great Temple, and was shocked to find money lenders perverting its sacredness as a gathering place.
The well-being of fellow humans is sacrificed for personal gain.
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here