The Opioid Epidemic: How Big Pharma And Congress Created America’s Worst Health Crisis

10/16/2017 01:09 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2017
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On Sunday night, Oct. 16, 2017, “60 Minutes” reported that whistleblower and former DEA Agent Joe Rannazzisi confirmed what I first wrote about in a HuffPost piece, “I Am A Heroin Addict,” on Nov. 2, 2015. Big Pharma, specifically Purdue Pharma, is responsible for the current opioid epidemic.

However, what Joe Rannazzisis added should shock us all. In fact, as a former heroin addict who beat a 10-bag-a-day habit, I hope this new information will be the final piece of the puzzle that turns this crisis on its heels.

Mr. Rannazzisi told “60 Minutes”:

... the opioid crisis was allowed to spread ― aided by Congress, lobbyists, and a drug distribution industry that shipped, almost unchecked, hundreds of millions of pills to rogue pharmacies and pain clinics providing the rocket fuel for a crisis that, over the last two decades, has claimed 200,000 lives.

Although I am delighted the DEA whistleblower dared to speak up, it is beyond reason to think these facts took so long to rise to the surface.

Unfortunately, the ability for Harvey Weinstein to skate free after decades of sexual abuse while all of Hollywood knew is tragically similar to why we didn’t know the facts of the current opioid epidemic earlier. Bottom line: It was money, money and more that ultimately controlled what the public should know.

Ironically, the facts about Big Pharma being complicit go back to 2003 when New York Times reporter Barry Meier wrote, Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Trail Of Addiction And Death. Meier’s book first exposed Purdue Pharma as the knowing and willing culprit that put corporate greed above the public safety.

Then, almost 13 years later, according to a May 2, 2016, Los Angeles Times investigative report:

Big Pharma had created a massive legal opiate addiction, which directly led to the heroin epidemic because pharmaceutical corporations’ own addiction to profit arguably trumps any concern it may have had for patients.

More specifically, when Purdue Pharma began marketing the chemical cousin of heroin in 2001, they recklessly convinced the then sitting FDA chief, Dr. Curtis Wright, that their new “wonder drug” OxyContin’s 12-hour “smooth and sustained” dosing would substantially lower the addiction rate caused by legal opioid pain medication.

But their claim was not only tainted in that its duration was often hours less than promised, but Purdue knew that before the painkiller ever hit the market. Oh, and by the way, shortly after the FDA approved the 12-hour labeling of OxyContin, FDA chief Dr. Curtis Wright resigned and took a high-paying job with Purdue Pharma.

Of course, Purdue Pharma, armed with a favorable label, embarked on a $200 million marketing campaign, touting its drug not just for cancer patients, but for muscle aches and injuries, for broken bones and for post-surgery pain, all set in stone according to the FDA.

Ironically, it was a government agency created to protect consumers that allowed a favorable labeling that translated to the deaths of thousands of young adults.

In Barry Meier’s book Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Tale of Addiction and Death, he wrote, “No other manufacturer of a Schedule II narcotic ever got the go-ahead from the FDA to make such a claim.”

In fact, according to an analysis of nationwide prescription data conducted for the Los Angeles Times, “More than half of long-term OxyContin users were on doses that public health officials consider dangerously high.“

In 2007, Purdue Pharma and three men ― Michael Friedman, Purdue Pharma’s chief executive; Howard Udell, its top lawyer; and Dr. Paul Goldenheim, chief medical officer ― pled guilty to criminal charges that the company had misled doctors and patients.

Unfortunately, the army of opioid addicts had already been trained and organized. The Mexican cartels saw the handwriting on the wall and cut the cost of a kilo of heroin in half.

In a New York minute, heroin filled America’s streets at the remarkably cheap cost of $7-$10 a bag. Purdue had orchestrated an unquenchable market.

In 2015, the richest newcomer to the Forbes annual top-20 list of America’s Richest Families entered in at a stunning $14 billion. The Sackler Family, owners of Purdue Pharma, built the 16th largest fortune by making the most popular opioid of the 21st century — OxyContin.

Today, the opioid epidemic has become America’s worst health crisis ever. Accidental drug overdoses killed more people in 2015 than HIV/AIDS at its 1995 peak. Last year, opioid overdoses ended more people’s lives than gun homicides and car crashes combined.

I wanted to highlight just what Joe Rannazzisi told “60 Minutes.”

This is an industry that’s out of control. What they wanna do is do what they wanna do and not worry about what the law is. And if they don’t follow the law in drug supply, people die. That’s just it. People die.
This is an industry that allowed millions and millions of drugs to go into bad pharmacies and doctors’ offices that distributed them out to people who had no legitimate need for those drugs.

But will the Rannazzisi piece of the puzzle be enough to cement the deal? Will the facts of who is responsible for creating the worst health crisis in America’s history finally cause President Trump and Congress to do something that will signal a significant blow to the direction the current epidemic is heading.

I fear that if they do nothing. I fear if corporate greed is allowed to prosper, the new face of heroin will be the beautiful young babies we are holding today.

Ritchie Farrell is the author of I am a Heroin Addict.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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