Can the Courts Fix the Opioid Crisis?

Two recent cases have highlighted the role of the pharmaceutical giants in the opioid crisis: The crisis has claimed the lives of over 400,000 people since 2000, and in 2015 alone, it cost taxpayers over $500 billion.

In Oklahoma, Johnson & Johnson was ordered by the court to pay $572 million in compensation due to its “false and dangerous” sales campaign. The court found that the 37th-largest publicly traded company in the US understated the dangers of addictive and often lethal prescription opioids to sell them across the country.

Meanwhile, the multibillionaire Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, are negotiating a settlement to cover around 2,000 lawsuits related to deaths from their drug, OxyContin. These companies knew full well the dangers of these drugs but marketed them as non-addictive painkillers:

The use of prescription opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, has skyrocketed in recent years, with over 200 million prescriptions in 2018 alone. Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma make enormous profits by persuading doctors—through financial incentives—to overprescribe these drugs.

Last year, 627,000 doctors received a total of $2.1 billion in non-research related payments from pharmaceutical companies. Additionally, between 2006 and 2015, pharmaceutical companies spent over $800 million on political lobbying. Healthcare providers and politicians are in the pockets of these legal drug cartels, which make enormous profits while causing widespread misery.

Healthcare providers and politicians are in the pockets of legal drug cartels, which make enormous profits while causing widespread misery. / Image: DES Daughter

The overuse of prescription opioids has severe consequences. Overdoses are common, and the drugs are incredibly addictive. In 2016, two million Americans became addicted to prescription opioids. This often leads to the use of illegal opiates like heroin once their prescriptions run out. An estimated 80% of new heroin users in 2016 got onto heroin after misusing prescription opioids. Over a million Americans now actively use heroin.

The impacts of opioid misuse are devastating and, in particular, affect young people in the de-industrialized rust belt. With the loss of stable, relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs, young workers who are prescribed opioids as painkillers often continue using them for short-term relief as they struggle to get by on low wages and a shredded social safety net. Around a fifth of deaths among Americans aged 24–35 are attributable to opioids.

This tragedy has been manufactured purely in the interest of a few parasitic companies that profit from death. These companies are now using the crisis as an opportunity to make a killing on drugs such as Naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses, hiking up the price of these life-saving drugs by 15,000% over the last decade.

For decades, the state has waged the so-called “War on Drugs,” targeting the workers, poor, and minorities. Donald Trump specifically demonized Mexican immigrants for bringing drugs into the country. However, the poor, minorities, and immigrants are not to blame for the drug crisis in America. The blame lies squarely with a system based on alienation, exploitation, and misery.

This crisis will not be solved through court action. The $572 million won in the Oklahoma case cannot begin to mitigate the 6,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in the state since 2000 and is negligible compared to the $55 billion in profits Johnson & Johnson made last year. This is reflected by the 5% rise in the value of shares in the company since the court’s ruling, demonstrating continued investor confidence in the company.

Image: Public Domain

In the Purdue Pharma case, the company appeared ready to settle, with an offer of up to $12 billion from the firm and a further $3 billion from the Sackler family itself. However, talks recently broke down, and it looks likely that Purdue Pharma will file for bankruptcy, which will mean a lower payout. The company and family have consistently denied any wrongdoing and are looking to protect their assets. It was recently found that much of the family’s money is stashed away in a system of trusts and companies that make it difficult to trace.

These cases highlight the sharp contradiction between society’s needs and the interests of capital. Pharmaceutical companies make billions, while millions of Americans suffer. When the courts try to hold them accountable, they deny wrongdoing and protect their assets. The vast wealth held by these companies is more than enough to invest in addiction treatment centers across the country. Only by expropriating the major pharmaceutical companies as part of a rationally and democratically planned socialist economy can we lay the foundations to resolve this mess.

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