Drugging America for Profit

Julia Goddard, Melissa Barreiro/PT

Drugging America for Profit

Who is more dangerous, the Sinaloa drug cartel or the United States pharmaceutical industry?
From the November 2016 Trumpet Print Edition

Burgess MacNamara was in pain. He had been a varsity athlete at the University of Central Florida, where he sustained multiple sports injuries. He took Percocet and Vicodin to numb the discomfort. After knee surgery, however, the pain was becoming intolerable. So his doctor prescribed something stronger: OxyContin.

This narcotic painkiller is marketed with a bold claim: One dose relieves pain for 12 hours. For this elementary school gym teacher, that sounded amazing.

MacNamara described OxyContin’s effects as unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. “The first six hours, it is awesome,” he later recounted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. However, the effects of the narcotic began wearing off before the advertised 12 hours, he said. As the effects began to wear off, he found himself obsessed over his next dose: “That’s all you think about. Your whole day revolves around that.”

Within a month, MacNamara rarely waited the recommended time between doses. “I can’t even tell you the times I actually waited 12 hours,” he said. “There weren’t many of them.”

Instead, he started crushing and snorting the pills so that the chemical compounds would diffuse into his blood faster. Within a year, he was forging prescriptions to get more OxyContin than his doctor was willing to prescribe. He said that as he descended into addiction, “Death was looking real good to me.”

Eventually, MacNamara switched to a cheaper alternative with a chemical content very similar to OxyContin.

That alternative was heroin.

MacNamara was eventually arrested and charged with possession of controlled substances, forging prescriptions and stealing pills from a school clinic. He lost his teaching career and spent 19 months in jail.

Yet MacNamara’s story has a silver lining. At the time of his interview, he’d been off drugs for more than two years.

Thousands of others have gone through similar experiences; however, their stories ended tragically. In 2014, over 18,000 people died from prescription painkiller overdoses and over 10,000 died from heroin overdose.

In fact, four out of five heroin addicts started out on opioid painkillers like OxyContin before making the switch. Doctors, journalists and government officials now recognize this situation as the opioid epidemic.

Synthetic opioids are engineered to act on the brain in a similar way as opium (dried latex from poppy flowers used to make heroin). Due to the chemical similarity between synthetic opioids and natural opium, Mexican cartels are pushing heroin on parts of America where people have high rates of prescription painkiller addiction.

Yet the pharmaceutical industry continues to push prescription opioids on people who don’t really need them.

Drug Pushers

The United States is easily the most medicated nation on the planet. Two out of three Americans take some sort of prescription. Americans account for 5 percent of Earth’s population and 75 percent of its prescription-drug use. In 2014, Americans spent $374 billion to purchase 4.3 billion drug prescriptions.

This means the average prescription-drug user takes 19 different prescriptions!

The reason Americans consume the majority of the world’s prescription drugs isn’t because they are less healthy than other people. Rather, Americans consume prescription pills at an abnormally high rate due to a cultural belief that they can use drugs to escape the effects of their problems without having to address root causes.

This belief is exacerbated by a pharmaceutical industry that recklessly pushes prescription drugs on people in an attempt to boost profits—regardless of the tragic consequences overprescription can have on people and families.

Pharmaceutical companies make over $1,700 per purchaser by selling prescription drugs to Americans, so they have money to spare for advertising and lobbying. The industry spent about $28 billion in 2012 to convince Americans that they needed to buy more pills. This spending averages out to $87 for every man, woman and child in America.

A 2003 Government Accountability Office report found that just one company, Purdue Pharma, gave doctors 34,000 coupons for free OxyContin prescriptions in an attempt to boost their drug sales. This advertising brought in some handsome dividends as the number of prescription painkillers being sold by U.S. pharmacies jumped 78 percent in only 14 years—from 116 million in 1999 to 207 million in 2013.

One of the tragic results of this boom in opioid sales is that overdose deaths resulting from opioid abuse quadrupled over this same time period.

Ninety-nine percent of doctors now overprescribe opioid painkillers, according to the National Safety Council. These powerful drugs were engineered to treat cancer patients and people just out of intensive surgery. Yet 71 percent of doctors write opioid prescription for chronic back pain, and 55 percent hand out opioids for toothaches.

With these facts in mind, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that 2.1 million Americans are currently addicted to prescription opioids.

The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that 70 percent of those abusing painkillers obtained them from a friend or family member. Another 18 percent got them directly from a prescribing doctor.

Only 5 percent had to get them from a criminal drug dealer.

Ripple Effects

OxyContin, MacNamara’s introduction to opioid addiction, was unveiled by Purdue Pharma in 1996.

Eleven years later, the company’s president, top lawyer and former chief medical officer all pleaded guilty to misleading the public about OxyContin’s risk of addiction. To make amends for their dishonesty, the company agreed to pay a cumulative $634.5 million in fines to the federal government, state and federal law enforcement agencies, various Medicaid programs, a Virginia prescription monitoring program and individuals who had sued the company.

While OxyContin peddlers misled the public about how addictive a chemical engineered to simulate opium can be, drug traffickers weren’t so easily duped.

The chemists working for the Sinaloa Cartel were well aware of what dihydroxycodeinone does to the human body. So when Sinaloa kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from prison in 2001, he noted that opioid addiction was on the rise in America and instructed his cartel to shift resources toward planting poppies.

Sinaloa was going to ramp up heroin production. It would have an increase in supply ready to meet what would become an inevitable and voracious increase in demand.

It was a shrewd business move.

Guzmán’s operatives have spent the last 15 years building heroin refineries and replanting marijuana fields with poppies. The cartel’s marijuana profits are falling, since many Americans can now legally use cannabis grown in America. So Guzmán’s operatives, much like Purdue Pharma, are pushing a narcotic.

With 2.1 million Americans already addicted to painkillers, market analysts working for drug cartels know that government attempts to crack down on painkiller overprescription will likely be too late. Without intensive rehab efforts to help people overcome their painkiller addiction, attempts to rein in opioid overprescription will likely just push more people into heroin addiction when they can no longer get their pills.

In many ways, the difference between legal opioids and illegal heroin is like the difference between Coke and Pepsi. The products come from different vendors but their overall effect is about the same. And both vendors rake in the profits as long as you consume more of their product—or even their competitor’s product.

The Real Solution

The U.S. government has spent over $1.5 trillion on antidrug programs since 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act and launched the War on Drugs.

Each year, federal, state and local governments spend $40 billion on drug prohibition efforts, yet 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the U.S.

Government efforts have helped control drug-related crime, but they haven’t reduced actual drug addiction rates. The number of Americans addicted to illicit drugs has remained relatively steady at about 1.3 percent since 1970. Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. hit an all time-high of 47,055 in 2014. That amounts to 128 people a day, triple the number of American casualties per day during the worst days of the Vietnam War. (Click here for more on the White House’s feeble response to the opiate epidemic.)

Federal drug policies strive to contain the effects of drug addiction without addressing causes. The government may spend $40 billion a year to stop illegal drug trafficking, but it also spends over $20 billion a year to develop new drugs that pharmaceutical companies can sell to foster the culture of substance abuse.

Money will not halt this epidemic as long as Americans glamorize drugs as the solution to their problems. Instead of educating people about diet, exercise, moral living and other healthy lifestyle habits, doctors and educators tout drugs (legal or illegal) as the go-to solution for sickness, pain, anxiety, depression and a myriad of other problems.

Like screen addiction, sugar addiction, gambling addiction or pornography addiction, drug addiction triggers unhealthy levels of the brain chemical dopamine. It is mainly this chemical that gives people the feelings of pleasure and exhilaration during a drug high. Addiction is about escaping.

Instead of addressing the underpinning causes of chronic pain, doctors just write a prescription for painkillers. Instead of educating people about the underpinning causes of sickness, they write a prescription for the newest antibiotic on the market. Instead of counseling people on how to overcome depression, they hand out the latest psychiatric drug. Our culture prescribes pills as a solution to almost every problem imaginable.

As the opioid crisis reveals, America’s overreliance on prescription pills is leading millions toward addiction.

There are very real causes behind the problems that drive so many people into addiction. Until people turn to God, His law and His truth—and away from fleeting, drug-induced moments of euphoria—these problems will worsen.

The long-term solution to this epidemic isn’t drug legalization or more spending to stop drug trafficking. The solution is dismantling America’s culture of escapism and turning to God’s pure, wholesome, happy way of life.