In the final installment of our series, A Selective History of Hard Drugs, Henry Vespa looks at the the world’s biggest pushers… big pharma companies.
You might think we’ve come a long way from the 1890s. Back then, the Sears Roebuck catalog (to be found in millions of homes in the U.S.) included a cocaine kit for $1.50 with a syringe and a shot of coke. Today, the idea of buying your fix from a department store or catalog seems quaint, ridiculous and just a little scary. But don’t kid yourself. Addictive narcotics are still widely and easily available and their sale is a very profitable – and legitimate – business.
How profitable, you ask? Well, apparently around about 40% of U.S. citizens are taking a daily dose one FDA-approved drug or other. In cash terms, this translates to an amazing $325 billion a year prescription drug industry. The big question is, how does that compare to the illegal drug trade. Obviously, that’s a little more difficult to guesstimate, given that very few cartels file accurate and honest tax returns. But, a 2012 White House study (carried out by the Rand Corporation) gives an annual figure of $100 billion, including cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Soooo… that means the pharmaceutical companies are making more than three times the amount raked in by their less-than-legal peers.
But so what? Prescription drugs are legal and controlled and safe, right? Not necessarily. For a start, many of them – e.g. OxyContin, Percocet, Dilaudid, Vicodin – are still opiate-derived and therefore highly addictive. They may take away the pain, but the body develops a need for that poppy rush. And interestingly, U.S. doctors are making about the same amount of diagnoses of pain year on year, but are prescribing more and more opiate-based drugs. Maybe that has something to do with the increase in illegal heroin use? Pure speculation, of course, but it seems reasonable that getting people hooked on one form of opium could be a gateway to their use of others? And as for safe – no, not really. The majority of deaths from drug overdose involve legal, prescription drugs. In the UK, deaths from Tramadol (a popular and powerful opiate pain reliever) were ten times those caused by cocaine. Back over in the U.S., the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that, “more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and coke combined.”
So, Big Pharma companies are getting rich selling dangerously addictive drugs. But surely it’s not their fault. If only people used these substances as prescribed then nothing could go wrong; just use them as directed… If that were really the case, then Purdue Pharma (to take just one example) wouldn’t have been fined $634.5 million in 2007 for misleading advertising. They basically played down the fact that OxyContin was highly addictive. The same year, Purdue settled out of court over claims that it was illegally encouraging doctors to overprescribe the same drug. Nice. By the way, while we’re on the subject of Purdue Pharma, we might as well mention that it’s a sponsor and financial donor to CADCA (the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America), an organization dedicated to protecting U.S. society from dangerous drugs. CADCA doesn’t have much to say on the topic of prescription drugs. It’s much more interested in stopping the legalization of marijuana. Oh, and one of its high-profile endorsers – Senator Patrick Kennedy – reportedly used to abuse prescription drugs, including… OxyContin, of course! You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Where does all this leave us? One take on it would be that problems caused by drug abuse have been made immeasurably worse by a century or so of rigorous prohibition and anti-drug legislation, resulting in more addicts than ever, a booming illegal drugs industry, and an even more booming legal drugs industry run by huge corporations who are encouraging and profiting from addiction (and have enough politicians in their pockets that their position can rarely – if ever – be assailed). A depressing view, maybe, but can you really see it otherwise?