Op-Ed: The Opioid-Addiction Industrial Complex — America’s Dirty Secret

Scott Rudder | May 24, 2017 | Opinion
The United States is in a crisis of its own making. We are by far the largest consumer of opioids on the planet

Scott Rudder
Turn on any radio or television channel and you will hear a report or an advertisement about the opioid addiction crisis in New Jersey and across the United States. If you continue to stay tuned to that channel, you will hear an advertisement promoting a prescription drug to help you with your pain issues. Keep listening to that same channel, and you will hear about a new prescription drug that will help you with the side-effects of the opioid prescription drug you heard about on the previous ad. Following that advertisement is yet another promotion for a drug-treatment center to help you with your addiction to these same prescription drugs.

If this scenario weren’t so serious and so deadly, it would be too ludicrous to believe. Yet, this is the vicious and often deadly cycle that is the creation of the opioid-addiction industrial complex that is uniquely American.

The truth is, the United States is in a crisis of its own making. We are by far the largest consumer of opioids on the planet. We consume six times more prescription opioids than France. We consume 99 percent of the world’s supply of hydrocodone. Last year, doctors wrote approximately 300 million opioid pain pill prescriptions for the 330 million people who live in the United States. This is as clear a model for addiction crisis if there ever were one.

Last year, abuse of prescription pain drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin killed 20,101 people. That’s more than two people per hour. This is more than all the U.S. casualties associated with 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined — and this happens every year.

So why isn’t more being done to address this crisis? Money, power, influence, and corruption. The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture these addictive drugs make more than $24 billion annually from pain medication. Drug treatment centers make over $35 billion annually. America’s prison systems, both private and publicly run, are a $74 billion industry. And the heroin provided by the drug cartels (the natural landing place for most prescription opioid addicts who no longer access these over-the-counter drugs) is an estimated $50 billion enterprise.

This is not to suggest there is actual collusion among these industries. But the motivation to dramatically curtail prescription opioids, which are the number one “gateway” to heroin and addiction, is underwhelming.

An alternative to opioids

One safe solution to address pain management without the addictive qualities of opioids that has not a single incident of overdose in all recorded history is medical cannabis. Not surprisingly though, the corporations that make up this opioid-addiction industrial complex are opposed to legalizing medical cannabis and may have played a heavy role in why New Jersey’s current medical cannabis law has been extremely limited in its implementation. This limitation has had significant and negative consequences.

New Jersey, with a population of nearly 9 million people has only 5 medical cannabis dispensaries. That’s 1 dispensary for every 1,780,000 million people. By comparison, Arizona has 1 dispensary for every 51,000 people. New Jersey has also seen a significant increase in its opioid deaths over the past couple of years, while Arizona has been statistically insignificant.

According to a recent poll, 93 percent of Americans support medical cannabis. Yet those that stand to lose the most financially vehemently oppose it. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry has spent tens of millions in lobbying and campaign donations opposing medical cannabis efforts. Why? They stand to lose a significant chunk of their $24 billion in annual opioid pain-pill sales if people switch to medical cannabis.

Certainly there are good, honest and hardworking people who work for Big Pharma, just as there are good people who work for addiction centers and our prison systems. In fact, New Jersey is home to 14 of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Nonetheless, we have a real crisis at hand and the best solution is for people to avoid getting addicted to opioids in the first place. The long and dark road of opioid addiction has devastated countless families for far too long.

Reducing opioid overdoses

Fortunately, despite the efforts by special interests, access to medical cannabis is on the rise across the country. In fact, states that have enacted effective medical cannabis laws have seen a 25 percent reduction in opioid overdoses.

Through scientific research and studies from states that have legalized cannabis, we are re-learning that cannabis is a healthy alternative to opioid pain pills, and the concerns of some are based on misinformation that produced outdated and unjustified policy.

If there is to be a comprehensive shift in America’s addiction to opioids then there needs to be a comprehensive shift in how we view alternatives to opioids and pain management.

Recently, New Jersey enacted a law limiting the initial supply of opioid prescriptions to five days. That is a good start but only one piece of the puzzle. Follow-on prescriptions that lead to addiction are still in the mix and readily available to others in the household.

The constant advertising of opioids must be curtailed and the aggressive and sometimes illegal marketing of opioids by pharmaceutical salespeople to doctors’ offices must be stopped. And just as importantly, healthy alternatives such as cannabis must be part of the solution and just as accessible to the average patient as opioids.

When people’s lives are at stake and healthy alternatives are available, we cannot afford to let those that make the most from opioid addiction tell us how to fix the crisis that they were complicit in creating in the first place.

We can do better. We must do better. With the right solution that includes real choices, we will do better.