Opioids and the failure of capitalism

By Robert Wasserstrom | Jun 20, 2019

Most of us know that Maine is going through an opioid crisis. Last year, 335 Mainers died of opioid-related causes. In 2017, one in seven newborn babies born suffered from exposure to drugs. As these children get older, their problems multiply. Special education costs in Rockland now run 35 percent above the state average due to opioids. Maine languishes in the upper tier of worst-afflicted states – exactly what you’d expect after Paul LePage cut taxes to subsidize his rich friends. Local property tax increases like the one in Rockland stick us with the cost of this give-away. So much for investing in our future.

News coverage of opioids usually focuses on individual struggles with addiction. This is good as far as it goes, but it has one major drawback: it normalizes the explosion of drugs in Maine. Normalization, as health and safety experts know, is a precursor to disaster. Things go wrong, but at first nothing terrible happens. We accept the new normal. Things get worse and we accept that, too. Warning signs – so-called “precursor events” – are disregarded. At some point, safety systems fail, either all at once or in rapid succession. Virtually every major disaster – from airplane crashes to Deepwater Horizon to El Faro – follows this well-documented pattern of cascading failure. So does our Big Pharma-engineered opioid crisis.

The story began in 1995, when federal regulators allowed Purdue Pharma to claim that OxyContin wouldn’t attract addicts. By 1996, company officials knew the truth: OxyContin pills were being crushed and snorted, stolen from pharmacies or overprescribed by crooked doctors. In 1998, the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association reported that “the relatively high street price” of OxyContin “should ring alarm bells.” In 2001, Purdue’s then-president told employees to blame the victim. “We have to hammer on abusers in every possible way,” he wrote. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

Normalization set in. Regulators turned a blind eye as Purdue advised doctors to prescribe the highest, most profitable dosages of OxyContin. In 2007, the company paid a $635 million fine for “misbranding” its products. Even so, the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute senior executives or the Sackler family, which owns Purdue. Instead of sitting in jail, they kicked their marketing campaign into higher gear. Since 1996, more than 200,000 people in the U.S. have died from opioid overdoses.

It would be easy, maybe even a little comforting, to blame this problem on “rotten apples” like Purdue. Sure enough, federal prosecutors in Massachusetts and New York are now scrambling to get rid of a few rotten apples. But the rotten apple theory disregards everything we know about systemic failure. Major disasters can’t be blamed on isolated instances or even corrupt businesses.

How did systemic failures bring on the opioid crisis? In our New Gilded Age, power comes overwhelmingly from money. With few exceptions, political and economic elites now control all major institutions that set the rules for our society. Economists and political scientists often call this situation “crony capitalism,” where government’s primary role is to help Big Money push pills or sell us overpriced electricity. As long as wealth flows upward, it doesn’t matter that 335 more people in Maine may die from overdoses this year or that the number of special needs children keeps rising. They’re just collateral damage.

For decades, we’ve been warned that Big Government would regulate away our freedom and tax us to death. But it wasn’t over-regulation that brought on the opioid epidemic: it was the cascading failure of government. Clearly, we can’t fix this problem by tinkering around the edges. It will take fundamental rethinking about what kind of society we want: a truly democratic one, where we have a real say in basic decisions, or a crony capitalist one, where we walk out of the voting booth hoping that things don’t get worse.

What would a more democratic society look like? One obvious example: a single-payer national health care system could drastically limit Big Pharma’s power to sell us overpriced or dangerous pills. Of course, that would involve a frontal assault on crony capitalism – the vast infrastructure of hidden subsidies, private health insurance, regulatory acquiescence and loose enforcement that transfers money from us to them. Powerful elites will scream about socialism – like they did about the eight-hour workday or abolishing child labor. But if we don’t confront crony capitalism today, our grandchildren will ask why we didn’t do anything while there was still time.

This column is a project of the Midcoast Branch of the Southern Maine Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.



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Comments (3)
Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Jun 27, 2019 06:08

I'll choose the high road, thank you very much, because that is the way my recovery from alcoholism took place.  They say, in 12 step recovery, that resentment is the number one offender that drives people back out again.   Sounds to me like there is plenty of that on both sides. I'm looking for an example of integrity and compassion; more concerned with lifting the opposition up instead of knocking them down.   We need winners not whiners. ;)

Posted by: Patricia Edith Kaplan | Jun 26, 2019 06:54

Right you are, many strong individuals are able to rise above their circumstances however many are not.  Again, I'll wager you're unable to understand the opioid crisis, as you have never lived in the third world situations like we have here right in the good, old, US of A like many who find themselves generation and after generation.  You hide behind your self righteousness, ipso facto you are blind to the atrocities in our country.  So simple to call the marginalized and destitute, lazy, good-for-nothings....gets you off the hook to have another filet mignon.  Wake up man, your brothers and sisters are dying in a system which allows such inequality.  And, you and I definitely understand the current culture differently.  As I see it the most dangerous criminals as wearing a suit and tie.  How about you take a trip to a North Dakotan, Indigenous reservation, or parts of Louisiana, and Alabama where poverty reigns, then we can see if your elitist attitude changes.


Posted by: Patricia Edith Kaplan | Jun 25, 2019 07:42

Mr. Schrader, take off the blinders.  My guess is, you never missed a meal, never witnessed your mother being backhanded by your father, had plenty of underwear and warm clothes (did you know it's not uncommon for some children in the Maine school system to not have underwear and socks), that you never were left alone for hours on end while your parents pursued drugs or sat in a barroom.  in other words I bet you had all your needs met and then some.  So when you pass judgement on our sick and suffering brothers and sisters, you, my dear man are the biggest problem we are facing in our failing system of check and balances (a phrase you might understand).  Open your heart sir, you have become mechanized and are no longer a human being.

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