By Tyler Bauer
Recently, a friend of mine shared an article about the number of heroin deaths surpassing the number of gun deaths for the first time in the United States. I was surprised to learn this, and I was even more surprised to see that this article was written nearly two years ago, when the opioid epidemic wasn’t quite as bad as it is today. I am well aware of the existence of the opioid epidemic, but I had no idea that the number of heroin deaths was so high.
Sadly, this trend has continued since, as recent CDC studies of available data show that the total number of drug overdose deaths in the United States has risen steadily. To make matters worse, sixty-six percent of these overdose deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid.
The increase in opioid overdoses is not specific to any area of the country. All regions of the United States have seen an increase, albeit at different rates. For example, the Midwest has been hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, seeing a seventy percent increase in drug overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017.
What Caused the Opioid Epidemic?
There are a number of causes to which the opioid epidemic can be attributed, but I think there is one that is far better than the rest. The opioid epidemic is caused by the relationship between the government and pharmaceutical companies (aka “Big Pharma”).
The connection between government and Big Pharma dates back decades, but one year – 1980 – stands out in particular. In 1980, a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine claimed addiction was “rare” in patients prescribed narcotics, such as opioids. Obviously, this is false. If narcotics were not addictive, we wouldn’t see Americans abusing painkillers on a daily basis. However, many Americans – including politicians – were willing to accept this claim as the truth, so doctors have been prescribing narcotics without fear of any negative consequences ever since, and the government has allowed it. This is crony capitalism at its worst.
To support this case of crony capitalism, Big Pharma has given billions upon billions of dollars to politicians and parties to allow the over-prescription of narcotics to go unchallenged. For example, ninety percent of members of the House of Representatives and all but three members of the Senate have taken campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies. One specific example is that of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Ryan, who is outspoken on the opioid epidemic, received $228,670 from pharmaceutical companies to support his 2016 reelection campaign. This total was the largest single contribution any candidate took from Big Pharma during that election cycle. Coincidentally, Speaker Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin was the hardest hit state in the Midwest with a 109% increase in drug overdoses from 2016 to 2017. Big Pharma’s contributions to politicians clearly affects the amount of drug overdoses that occur, and Speaker Ryan’s acceptance of Big Pharma’s money is only making things worse.
How to Solve the Opioid Epidemic
Supporting the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t enough for Big Pharma. Lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry have also made a point of fighting against decriminalization of drugs such as marijuana. This only exacerbates the problem of the opioid epidemic, as marijuana decriminalization has been linked with a decrease in fatalities from the opioid epidemic. I’m not saying smoking weed or eating edibles is a good habit to develop, but it’s certainly much less dangerous than using heroin or any other opioid. Nobody has ever died solely due to marijuana. Furthermore, if heroin was decriminalized, users would be more likely to seek help due to the fact that users would no longer fear being punished for using, buying, and/or selling heroin.
To look for a solution, we should look to Portugal. In 1999, one percent of Portugal’s population reported an addiction to hard drugs. Portugal was able to cut down on hard drug use and overdoses by decriminalizing drugs and focusing on “harm reduction, treatment, and rehabilitation.” By 2009, Portugal cut its number of addicts in half and reduced the number of overdose deaths to thirty per year. This is still thirty too many, but it is evident of a policy change that has been wildly successful. Today, Portugal has forty publicly-funded facilities that treat roughly four thousand addicts for free. (I would much rather this be privately funded, but it’s a successful system nonetheless.)
One can only wonder what a similar program, combined with policy changes, could accomplish in the United States.