Opiate of the masses: what's really driving America's prescription drug epidemic.

Author:Hearn, John
Position::Essay
 
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IN THE SPRING of 2016 a physician in Buffalo, New York, was issued a 114-count indictment accusing him of "the unlawful distribution of narcotics" and "operating a criminal conspiracy." The US Attorney General for the western district of New York said that the doctor, who had nearly 10,000 patients and had written over 100,000 prescriptions in a single year, "was acting like a drug dealer." An FBI spokesperson added that the doctor "let his patients down, he let his employees down, and he let the community down."

The indictment brought an immediate response from all three constituencies. In chat rooms and on Facebook pages, on radio talk shows and television network news programs, hundreds protested the indictment and the subsequent closing of the busy medical office. Patients maintained the medication was required for them to both carry out routine tasks, like driving a car, and to experience the fulfilling joys of life, such as playing with grandchildren. One said the pills allowed her to, quite simply, "have a life"; another called the man who prescribed them a "godsend." Employees described the doctor as dedicated and caring. Their tone was one of indignation, based on a shared belief that they had been let down not by their physician, but by their government.

On the heels of this response, the Attorney General and a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson promptly met with reporters to "clear up some confusion" about the case; days later the clinic reopened.

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More than 250 million prescriptions for painkillers are written each year in the United States. Enough were prescribed in F 2010 to medicate each American adult every four hours for a month. Americans, about 5 percent of the world's population, account for 99 percent of the worlds hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world's oxycodone (Percocet and OxyContin) consumption and 65 percent of the world's hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times. All the while the use of illicit drugs, including non-prescribed painkillers, continues to grow.

It's no longer a secret that the substantial swath of Americans living under the influence of these opiates do so with at least the tacit approval of our political system. Our law enforcement agencies, after all, focus on only a small number of the poorest users (and then only the few who become addicted and engage in crime), and our taxpayer-funded healthcare programs support the epidemic...

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