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General News    H3'ed 11/19/19

Tomgram: Mattea Kramer, The Opioid Crisis in Perspective

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As a website, TomDispatch has long focused on one great twenty-first-century American addiction: our endless wars. Eighteen years after the 9/11 attacks, from Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen to Somalia, those conflicts only continue. In the process, ever more people die or are displaced; the world becomes more unsettled; governments totter or fail; and victory, by any definition, remains beyond some unimaginable horizon. And yet the addiction continues, largely unexamined (except in places like this). Only recently, for instance, one of those addicts, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, spoke about the necessity of the U.S. military remaining in Afghanistan for "several more years" since the "mission" there "is not yet complete." In similar fashion, he added that perhaps 600 American troops (replacing those supposedly sent "home" by President Trump in early October), along with tanks and Bradley Armored Vehicles, are being sent to northeastern Syria to protect... well, oil, or something valuable to this country anyway.

Meanwhile, here at home, another kind of endless war rages. Think of it as the modern equivalent of a nineteenth-century opium war. Only in this case, the drugs, addictive opioids, aren't being sent thousands of miles away by an imperial power. The companies producing them have instead found a far simpler formula for their distribution. They just essentially send them to your trusted local doctor, wherever in this country you happen to live. The casualty figures since 1999 are horrific -- nearly 400,000 dead, an estimated 218,000 of whom perished from prescription opioids. And the wounded, often in jails, are beyond counting. It's a nightmare that this site has rarely covered, but that TomDispatchregular Mattea Kramer explores today in a particularly vivid way. Tom

A 12-Step Program to Opioid Justice
Finding Peace Amid the New Opium Wars
By Mattea Kramer

It was evening and we were in a windowless room in a Massachusetts jail. We had just finished a class -- on job interview skills -- and, with only a few minutes remaining, the women began voicing their shared fear. Upon their release, would someone really hire them? Beneath that concern lurked another one: Would they be able to avoid the seductively anesthetizing drugs that put them in jail in the first place?

Their disquiet was reasonable. Everyone with me around that grey plastic table, along with the vast majority of other prisoners in the jail, was addicted to opioids. On the cinderblock wall, a laminated sign read: "We take stock of all the suffering we have experienced and caused as addicts."

Thousands of lawsuits are making their way through the court system in an effort to force some kind of repayment from the corporations that manufactured, distributed, and dispensed billions of doses of prescription opioids. Those drugs, including OxyContin and fentanyl, have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, while entangling untold numbers of others in addiction (and, often, in illegal activities like larceny to pay for the drugs they then craved). The pharmaceutical companies involved have, unsurprisingly, been eager to deny their culpability, which has led to a vast blame game that's routine in our republic of finger pointing.

When a surge of opioid addiction transformed my small New England hometown, I began to write about what was happening and follow local efforts to combat the scourge. This, in turn, led me to that jail, first as a writer on assignment and eventually to the front of that ad-hoc classroom. At the same time, over the course of two years, I interviewed dozens of people in recovery. What I learned was that, nestled within this crisis (if you knew where to look), people were taking responsibility for what had happened to them and doing so in a transformative way. They had discovered that blaming others -- even the worst of those drug companies -- was a quick path to the bottom, while taking responsibility turns out to be a race to the top.

The "Scum of the Earth"

On a sunny fall morning, I pulled off Route 2 in central Massachusetts and into the parking lot of what used to be the Wachusett Village Inn. It still looks like a picturesque country hotel, but today it's a detox facility and recovery center. I'm here to meet the friend of a friend. When she greets me at the front atrium, I notice that she has a lanyard around her neck with an ID indicating that she's on staff. Years ago, though, Anna Du Puis could have been a patient here. Before she got sober, she went through detox for opioid addiction so many times she lost count.

"I'm a story of perseverance," she assures me -- and, when she says it, she seems to glow with energy.

It's only recently that Anna has had this full-time job helping others who are, as she once was, in early recovery. Before that she sold insurance, telling no one she had been an addict and regularly hearing coworkers and others dismiss addiction as a choice and treatment as a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Thought about a certain way, the pharmaceutical companies that produced those opioids pulled off the perfect crime. They peddled addictive products that were prescribed by trusted physicians, while those who became addicted gained scant sympathy. After all, once they were hooked, they were, by definition, drug addicts. Richard Sackler, former president of Purdue Pharma and mastermind behind the marketing campaign that launched OxyContin and remade opioid prescribing practices in this country, is now infamous for referring to those who became addicted to his blockbuster drug as the "scum of the earth."

For this we vilify Sackler -- what he did was deplorable -- but it's also true that every time any of us has accepted drug addict as an unsavory epithet, we've given an assist to him, to Purdue, and to the rest of the pharmaceutical industry that profited not only from addiction but from our prejudice toward it. By looking down on those afflicted with this disease, we, the public, helped insulate corporate perpetrators from responsibility.

In the process, we have also missed the chance to witness something incredible.

"A Searching and Fearless Moral Inventory"

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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