The opioid crisis: widespread and institutional

William Wehrs

As highlighted by Adam Del- Marcelle’s recent exhibition in the Berman Museum, there is an opioid crisis in the United States. In “Time Magazine’s” expose on the opioid crisis, Deputy Sheriff Walter Bender of Columbus Ohio remarked bitterly that “opioids reach every part of society: blue collar, white collar, everybody. It’s non-stop. It’s every day. And it doesn’t seem like it’s getting any better.”

Phillip Reevell of “BBC News” reports that in 2017, there were over 72,000 drug related deaths in the United States. Additionally, Yale Medicine reported that opioid use is the leading cause of death for people aged 18-35 in the US. The root of this problem can often be linked to the use of addictive painkillers. I personally knew a woman who had been happily married for five years only to see her husband become increasingly apathetic due to his addiction to the drugs. This story is far from unique, with two million Americans taking prescription painkillers in 2015.

A study by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital also found that one
in 20 young adults use opioids for too long after surgeries. One example from the study concerns a person called “Jessica” who was feeling pain after she had her wisdom teeth removed. Her stepfather lent her some Percocet, which led to her becoming so addicted that taking the drug became the first thing she thought about when she woke up, and the last thing she thought about before going to sleep.

Disturbingly, a CNN report by Aaron Kessler, Elizabeth Cohen and Katherine Grise found the pushing of painkillers is often done by doctors. The journalists revealed that in 2014 and 2015, opioid manufacturers would pay to doctors who endorsed their product. As a result, thousands were paid over $25,000 by these companies. Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Institute for Behavioral Health at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, where he is co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative, lamented that “it smells like doctors being bribed to sell narcotics, and that’s very disturbing.”

It is not just doctors who
are culpable, however, as in
fact culpability reaches up to
the very top. A new report by Chris McGreal of “The Guardian” found that the FDA appears to be failing to do its job. The head of the FDA opioid advisory team, Dr. Raeford Brown, spoke out in the piece against what he saw as harmful FDA practices. Brown directly accused the FDA of caring about the profits of the narcotics industry, such as their approval of the drug, Dsuvia, a narcotic pill. This pill was approved despite Brown’s warning that this drug would cause abuse and death as soon as it reached the market. Critically, Brown is not the only one criticizing the FDA for this decision as four US senators wrote a letter to the head of the FDA, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, with a plea not to allow it on the open market as it would only be “to the detriment of the public health.”

Clearly, if we are to solve the opioid crisis infecting the country right now, we have to work at overhauling the institutions that, rather than doing their job of protecting us from harm, are in fact actively contributing to the problem. Only by reforming the pharmaceutical industry can we prevent the poor and vulnerable from falling prey to this crisis which has swept through our country over the past decade.