Opioid Epidemic: A Lethal Expression of Capitalism's Failure

The crisis of capitalism has had a profound effect on the health and consciousness of the working class, which is expressed in many different ways. Decades after the ruling class launched the one-sided “War on Drugs” targeting poor and minority neighborhoods, there is no end in sight. Since the turn of the century, the US has experienced its worst drug epidemic ever. At the forefront is the family of drugs known as opioids, which includes Oxycontin, heroin, and fentanyl. Between 2002 and 2015, the number of deaths from opioid overdose has quadrupled. As of 2015, the number of fatalities from opioid overdoses now outpaces both gun-related deaths and car accident fatalities.

The significant change in the last period is that opioid abuse has shifted from being more prevalent in urbanized states to more rural ones. The data clearly shows where and whom the epidemic is hitting hardest: working class people living in the Rust Belt and the Northeast, most of whom are involved in the construction trades and going through middle age, with whites overdosing at a rate almost double that of Hispanics and blacks.

The highest rates of deaths reported are among adults between ages 45 and 54, while the construction industries have a rate of opioid use up to 10% higher than any other industry. Construction is incredibly stressful on the human body. After several years in the building trades, many workers find their bodies damaged to the point of causing pain so constant and severe it becomes impossible to work. But instead of allowing these workers the necessary time to heal up before returning to the job, they are forced to rely on pain medications to enable them to work through the day to feed their families. In a rising number of cases, a simple prescription from their doctor is not a permanent fix to their situation.

As workers continue to take their prescribed medications, their bodies begin to develop a tolerance to the drug. Thus, the workers who are desperately searching for a way to ease chronic pain are forced to use higher and higher dosages or seek more potent opioids. To do so, many individuals find ways to receive multiple prescriptions, from various doctors. The proof of this is quite clear: in several states with some of the highest overdose rates, the number of opioid prescriptions exceeds the number of people in the state!

Why, then, are doctors continuing to write so many prescriptions in the midst of this deadly epidemic? The answer lies in the evident fact that it is profitable in the context of a market-based health care system. Drug companies spend billions of dollars to motivate doctors to continue to prescribe their products. California alone reported $1.44 billion spent from August 2013 to December 2015. Thus, the market compels doctors to put profits before patients with decisions that are potentially fatal to the very people they are supposed to care for. Many doctors also seem to ignore the fact that for many patients, the prescriptions they give are no longer sufficient to ease the pain.

When someone’s tolerance becomes too high, they are far more likely to resort to self-medication. While it is true that opioid prescriptions have continued to rise in the 21st century, their percentage of overdose-related deaths has not. The sharp spike in deaths from heroin and other illegal opioids runs parallel with a plateau in the number of deaths from prescription opioids. The spike in deaths from illicit opioids can be explained in part because people who have become dependent on prescription opioids feel compelled to turn to illicit versions, not only to numb the pain but also to stave off the effects of withdrawal, which can be just as painful.

Finding rehabilitation facilities to assist with overcoming these dependencies is virtually impossible for many workers. Those who do have a facility nearby often find them prohibitively expensive. In 2013 alone, over 300,000 people attempted to get treatment for their addictions but were unable to. As the epidemic worsens, workers across the country are searching for a solution to the problem.

Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to eradicating the opioid epidemic—and there is no solution within capitalism. It was not the workers who forced their brothers and sisters to work jobs that would cause irreparable harm to their bodies. It was not the workers who bribed doctors to feed potentially habit-forming drugs to their patients. It was not workers who refused to set up the necessary infrastructure to help those afflicted.

It was the bosses, who care only about their profit margins as the decrepit system of capitalism destroys millions of lives. Their relentless drive for profits has led to a countrywide phenomenon in which workers labor to the point of crippling injury, and instead of being given proper treatment and rest, are drugged to the point of lethality. Only under a planned economy will we be able to set up the infrastructure to treat those affected by this crisis, and eliminate to causes that lead people to abuse drugs and their bodies. The capitalist system, which works people to death and robs them of their dignity, is not only absurd, it is barbaric, and the only way to end it is a socialist revolution.

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