If you ask people with substance use disorders — more colloquially, addictions — what caused their disorders, you’ll most likely get answers like chronic or acute pain, mental illness, alienation, isolation, hopelessness and anguish — things specific to an individual’s life.
However, bigger forces are at play in the addictions of many people. One is the complex network of drug dealers, kingpins and cartels. The other force, the one most responsible for the latest drug epidemic, is big pharma. The equally labyrinthine network of big pharmaceutical companies, bribed doctors and other medical personnel, as well as “pain association” front groups, put their profits and financial gains above honesty and the safety of the public.
Each and every pharmaceutical company has essentially deceived the public about the addictive nature of its drugs. For example, Purdue Pharma misused two studies to attempt to show that the risk of addiction to OxyContin (oxycodone) was less than 1 percent. Yet this study was intended to show only the risk of addiction in patients with acute pain, not chronic pain, or in people who had consumed diverted (stolen or sold) OxyContin.
Even now, even as fentanyl is ravaging both cities and rural areas, new formulations are being released by irresponsible drug manufacturers, with the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration. Although these new formulations have yet to be diverted, they eventually will be.
The fight against drug addiction under capitalism looks different from the fight against drug addiction under socialism. Under capitalism, we have few weapons which we can use to stop drug pushers, including the bourgeoisie in the boardrooms. One such weapon is the lawsuit, and states have been pursuing exactly that against the drug manufacturers who knew how dangerous their products were.
Despite diversion being one of the reasons why these powerful drugs came out onto the drug market, ultimately the manufacturers are responsible, because they downplayed the serious risks involved with the drugs they made. They fostered an environment where people thought that, because they were prescription pills, they were safe.
There are over 2,000 opioid-related lawsuits, many of which originated from the state at the behest of survivors of the opioid epidemic. The main legal argument used in lawsuits against drug manufacturers is that they downplayed the risk of the drugs’ addictiveness and overhyped their safety, along with manufacturing such an overwhelming amount of opioids that diversion was inevitable.
The ultimate hope of the drug lawsuits is that not only will opioid manufacturers be required to pay for the choices they made, but they will also stop the actions that caused the epidemic in the first place.
The first lawsuit and ruling to come against the big pharmaceutical companies was Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. Previously, the state of Oklahoma had settled with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. for $85 million, despite Teva claiming that it had no role in fueling Oklahoma’s opioid epidemic. Purdue Pharma had also settled with Oklahoma for $270 million.
Originally, the state had decided to sue Johnson & Johnson for $17 billion, the amount it estimated would be needed to fund drug treatment, drug courts and other services in the wake of the epidemic. Unfortunately, Oklahoma was awarded only $572 million on Aug. 26 as a result of the lawsuit. But despite it generating less than the desired amount, this lawsuit sets down a legal pathway for other states to sue drug companies for their actions.
Much like Teva, however, Johnson & Johnson claims that it had no role in the state’s opioid epidemic and that Oklahoma’s failure to act is what caused the drug epidemic. The company says it will aggressively appeal the decision.
For what it’s worth, these drug companies know they’ve already lost in the court of public opinion and are on the losing end of these lawsuits, which is why they continue to settle rather than fight on. Purdue Pharma is facing so many lawsuits that either bankruptcy or a single, large settlement are its only options.
Under capitalism we will never see true justice for all the lives that have been taken as a result of the reckless, selfish actions on the part of drug companies, and indeed all drug pushers. But these lawsuits are a start. Under socialism, we would like to see a People’s Tribunal that oversees justice for survivors of the epidemic and those victims who were lost to it. Until then, we must keep our eyes on what little justice we can eke out of this system.
(Credit: National Institutes of Health)
(Credit: National Institutes of Health)
This is a slightly edited version of a talk given during the “What Road to…