Throughout this past election cycle, there was a lot of talk of getting lobbyists and special interests groups out of politics. There was talk on both sides of the aisle about the importance of having an America that was not bought and sold by large corporations – whose only interest was turning a profit, even if they had to do so at the expense of the American populous. There was talk of draining the swamp and making America great again, but for all of that rhetoric, there was little talk centered on the thousands of drug lobbyists in this country and the immense role they have played in propagating the opioid epidemic we have seen in this country.
For those of you who do not know, opioids like Oxycontin and Fentanyl and traditional opiates like heroin, have ravaged this country in epidemic proportions over the past few years, leading to what some are calling an opioid epidemic. In 2015, more people died from heroin overdoses than from guns and in total, over 30,000 people died from opioid-related causes. 2016 has seen its fair share of issues in regards to this problem as foreign made Fentanyl made its way onto American streets where dealers then cut their heroin with this powerful drug. Many heroin users unaware of the strength of what they were about to use overdosed and died because of this. Even stronger synthetic opioids like Carfentanil were introduced into the popular lexicon and towns in the Midwest saw dramatic increases in the number of overdoses because of it. Law enforcement has done its best to combat this problem, but for all their effort, it seems to just continue to grow.
What makes all of this worse is that most of it can be traced back to a single company, Purdue Pharma, and the release of Oxycontin back in the late 90’s. Purdue Pharma released Oxycontin as a safer and less addictive alternative to traditional opiates and since this was believed in the medical communities, Oxycontin was prescribed liberally for a number of years. By the time it was shown that this was categorically untrue, the damage had already been done and an entire generation of people were hopelessly addicted to the powerful substance. Purdue Pharma had to pay $600 million in damages for misleading the government and public, but that is just a drop in the bucket of the billions they made off of its sale.
The story doesn’t end there though and this past year, investigative journalists discovered that Purdue Pharma and its sales partners Abbott Laboratories spent nearly $880 million in the ten year period from 2006 to 2015 on lobbying and political contributions. They found that during this same time period, the companies were involved in an aggressive and misleading campaign in order to drive sales of their drug and keep lawmakers from interfering.
This is the same story we’ve seen time and time again in American politics where a company or individual throws money at the legislative process and because of it, they reap the benefit while the American public suffers. Technically speaking, these drug lobbyists were just doing their jobs. They were just ensuring that the companies they represented were taken care of, but at what expense? In this particular case, the expense was tens of thousands of people dead and millions more addicted to drugs.
Without that $880 million it is hard to say what the outcome would have been. It is hard to say whether the FDA and other governing bodies would have taken a harder look at Oxycontin and enacted stricter laws sooner, but what can be said is that the $880 million probably helped to continue the problem. I mean with that much money on the table, how could it not?
However, I believe it would be wholly unfair to completely blame drug lobbyists for the current problem we have with drugs in this country. For one, we have had a problem with addiction in this country for decades to the point where we even outlawed alcohol once. Although that was a complete failure and gave rise to organized crime and other terrible things, but nonetheless, we have for the most, part always had an issue with addiction in this country and for the most part, we have never truly understood how to deal with it.
We have tried to wage an all out war on drug addicts and that failed. We have tried to tell people to ‘Just Say No’ and that failed, and at every turn we seemed to fumble the ball on how to truly deal with the problem of addiction in this country. But that seems to be changing and so if anything good can be said about the current opioid epidemic we are facing, it is that we are finally taking a real look at the way we handle drug addiction in this country. The number of deaths, and the amount of people addicted to substances have caused us to turn the magnifying glass on ourselves and take a look at what we are doing. We have started to see that our national agenda on drug addiction has not worked and so we are moving towards a more educational and preventive means in order to combat addiction. We are looking to rehabilitate rather than incarcerate and with these measures in place, as well as the exposing of drug lobbyists, we will hopefully see a 2017 that reverses the trends we have seen.