Politics

Big Pharma Flooding Main Street America With Opioids

“Now, members of Congress are wondering how a sleepy West Virginia town that’s home to less than 3,000 people has been flooded with nearly 21 million prescription painkillers.”

The United States is combating the worst drug crisis in its history, with millions of Americans addicted to opioids and thousands dying each year. Each day, nearly 100 Americans die from opioid-related complications, with roughly 40% of casualties resulting from prescription opioids (e.g., OxyContin) rather than street drugs like heroin. As of 2014, roughly 2 million Americans were abusing or dependent upon prescription opioids.

Now, members of Congress are wondering how a sleepy West Virginia town that’s home to less than 3,000 people has been flooded with nearly 21 million prescription painkillers. Yes, million. Millions of pills are flowing through just two small pharmacies in Williamson, West Virginia, and authorities are struggling to figure out how and why.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been digging into the opioid crisis, and a disturbing trend of potential medical malpractice is emerging. Across the country, pill farms appear to be cranking out massive quantities of drugs. In many cases, it appears that rogue doctors are writing bogus prescriptions. Drug dealers are also trying to buy up pill supplies or else get prescription pill addicts hooked on heroin.

Doctors are giving patients who don’t need pills prescriptions or else recommend higher doses and other “treatment” times than what is actually needed. Problem is, opioids have high addiction rates, and the risk of moving on to other drugs, such as herion, is also substantial. The ongoing opioid crisis has forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to announce sweeping crackdowns on over-prescription.

In many cases, drug companies and pharmacists have been turning a blind eye to potential impropriety. However, government efforts to collect data will make it more difficult for pharmacies to hand out opioids like candy.

The current drug crisis has caught many health experts off guard. In the past, drug problems largely plagued high-risk and disenfranchised communities. Traditionally, drug abuse has been fueled by the unemployed and other high-risk communities. However, the current opioid epidemic is destroying middle and upper-class families at a shocking pace. Currently, non-Hispanic whites suffer from an increased likelihood of opioid addiction when compared to minority communities.

Prescriptions are a big part of the reason why. Often, otherwise hardworking Americans become addicted to prescription opioids after a surgery, workplace injury, or another incident. Once hooked on prescription opioids, many struggle to kick the habit even after their prescriptions run out. Worse yet, many end up dabbling in street drugs, like heroin.

Nearly 80% of Americans who report using heroin first report misuing prescriptions first. In many cases, addicts were first supplied opioids by their doctors. Unfortunately, between 20 to 30% of those prescribed opioids end up abusing them. 8 to 12% end up with a serious opioid “disorder.” Further, 4 to 6% graduate from prescription pills to heroin and other hard street drugs.

Veterans are among the must vulnerable populations. Many vets suffer from dibilitating conditions, such as lost limbs, or PTSD. Opioids are frequently prescribed to those veterans suffering from chronic pain. Meanwhile, veterans suffering from PTSD are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

So why do doctors continue to write prescriptions for millions and millions of pills? Drug companies are producing huge profits off of opioids. This has allowed them to hire lobbyists to shackle Congressional crackdowns and to hire huge sales staffs that can pressure individual doctors to write prescriptions. Drug companies have spent at least $2.5 billion lobbying Congress in recent years.

OxyContin alone is believed to have generated over $35 billion in sales. The family that owns OxyContin manufacturer Perdue, the Sacklers, has joined the short-list of billionaire families with a net worth estimated to have topped $14 billion.

Brian Brinker

Brian Brinker is a political consultant and has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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