Opioid Crisis, Part 1: Origins – Big Pharma’s Big Con Game

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Staten Island, a working-middle class bedrock, now dubbed ‘Heroin Island.’ How did this homey community fall into crisis? Our piece on the origins of the U.S. heroin/opioid epidemic shot in Staten Island, aired on June 6, 2016, and can be seen here, starting at 7:54.

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Our protagonist, Wayne Justice, takes the ferry from Manhattan back home to Staten Island. An accomplished artist, Wayne had bouts with drug addiction earlier in life before successfully kicking the habit.

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But when Wayne sustained a serious leg injury he was prescribed with a medicine cabinet’s supply of opiates. He needed increasing quantities as his tolerance grew. Going through withdrawals after his prescriptions ran out, he turned to heroin supplied by a local dealer. How was it that Wayne was legally prescribed with all of the drugs in the first instance? The answer lies with the activities of Big Pharma.

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Donald Trump famously talks about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, in part to keep the drug traffic out. Perhaps he should better consider a wall around Stanford, Connecticut, the home of Purdue Pharma, instead.

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Purdue has manufactured and marketed ‘OxyContin’ since the mid-1990’s. An Oxycontin tablet provides the patient with 12-hour time released dosages of the opioid Oxycodone. Oxycontin is nearly identical on a molecular level to heroin. Purdue obtained FDA approval for Oxycontin to be used to treat chronic as well as acute pain. Purdue argued to the FDA that there was no evidence that its new product would be addictive.

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Dr. Andrew Kolodny, one of the U.S.’s leading addiction specialists, explains that Purdue lied to the FDA. From its research, it knew that testers were getting hooked and experiencing withdrawals.

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Purdue undertook an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at convincing physicians and the public that their wonder drug would not turn patients into junkies.  This, of course, was false, leading to countless cases of addiction throughout the nation, in unlikely places such as New Hampshire and Staten Island. When prescriptions would run out, the cartels would be ready to supply cheap heroin as a substitute.

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The federal government brought criminal charges against Purdue for its fraud, which resulted in a non-jail time guilty plea by three mid-level company executives and a $600 million fine – a slap on the wrist. Prosecutors were prepared to seek much steeper penalties, including jail sentences, before Purdue’s powerful and well connected lawyers – including a former U.S. Attorney – intervened (as described here).

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Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, emerged unscathed, and are  celebrated for their philanthropies paid for with their ill-gained opioid booty. Meanwhile, prisons are filled with low-level drug dealers serving multi-decade sentences.

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Mary Jeanne Kreek of New York’s Rockefeller University is the grand dame of addiction-therapy treatment, having been one of the developers of methadone as a heroin-substitute treatment in the 1960’s.

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For Kreek, the current opioid epidemic brought on by the pharmaceutical companies s on a scale comparable to the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Despite numerous programs calling for “Cold Turkey,’ Kreek finds it essential that addicts be treated with substitute drugs, such as methadone. Pure abstinence is successful less than 10% of the time.

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Here, Wayne is at his clinic in Staten Island with a physician, discussing his use of a substitute drug, Suboxone. He credits this drug as well as the endorphins released through exercise with his recovery.

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A final view of the lower-Manhattan skyline from the Ferry, heading back towards ‘Heroin Island.’