Opioids. Opioid addiction. Opioid deaths. Opioid crisis. Those words and the devastation that comes with them pop up every day, everywhere — in conversations, in the news, on social media, in emergency rooms, in living rooms, in hospitals and obituaries.
Whenever I hear those words, a crushing, vivid image bullies its way into my mind: my 19-year-old nephew, lying on the floor of his bedroom, his right arm straight and stiff above his head. He is surrounded by paramedics, his chest dotted with the sticky pads that held electrodes they had used in an attempt to shock him back to life, even though he was so clearly gone.
I witnessed this with my arm around my sister, who found her son unmoving and cold in his bed while his alarm clock blared next to him. She had her husband, then an emergency-room doctor, move Andrew out of his bed and onto the floor and try to revive him until the paramedics arrived. Andrew was their only son. A sweet, kind, funny kid who had struggled for many years with mental illness.
Andrew’s toxicology report came back with the cause of death noted as acute heroin toxicity. On the night he died, Andrew had tried to get Percocet, the painkiller frequently prescribed by doctors and dentists that has become the go-to drug for so many. When Andrew couldn’t find prescription drugs, he went up the chain to heroin.
To say that Andrew’s death was devastating to our family is, of course, a gross understatement. Sadly, we are far from alone. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. Since 1999, opioid deaths have quadrupled, as have sales of prescription drugs. It is estimated that opioids could kill as many as 500,000 people in the next decade.
As many know, the opioid crisis in this country has been fed by prescription medications that have been so readily doled out by health care providers and encouraged by the pharmaceutical industry.
Big Pharma is to blame, yet it continues to reap the benefits of this crisis. Worse yet, our government has not helped to put out this fire; instead, government has fueled the flame.
I had long felt that Big Pharma was the biggest cog in this wheel of a mess, but was astounded and outraged when I learned the extent of it in the recent “60 Minutes” story that reported how the opioid crisis has been aided in part by Congress, lobbyists and the drug-distribution industry.
As reported by CBS News, “at least 46 investigators, attorneys and supervisors from the DEA, including 32 directly from the division that regulates the drug industry,” have been hired by the pharmaceutical industry since the scrutiny on distributors began.
It is appalling and deeply disturbing that the deep pockets of individuals, drug and distribution companies continue to be lined with money tied to the deaths of so many Americans. Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have more than doubled over the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 188,000 people died from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2015.
While pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors and their executives have gotten rich and are getting richer, our prisons are grossly overcrowded with men and women (mostly African-Americans) serving overzealous sentences for minor drug offensives.
This is ludicrous, and we cannot let this continue. I was pleased and mildly hopeful when I read in a recent Star Tribune article that cities and counties across the state are joining a national push to sue drug manufacturers. They must be held accountable for the health crisis they have created. We must demand retribution and change in the pharmaceutical industry.
We must also demand change in the medical and insurance industries so that they are willing to prescribe and cover the costs of alternatives to pain pills, such as acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, yoga and medical marijuana. We need transformation in our health care system, and we need alternatives.
We also need to change the so-called war on drugs to the war on opioid drugmakers.
Chris Bauer is a writer and marketing professional living in the Twin Cities. Her first book, “Those Three Words,” is scheduled for publication in May 2018. She can be reached on Twitter @AuthorCBauer or at AuthorChrisBauer@gmail.com.