Public Comment

What Is REALLY Killing Drug Users?

Harry Brill
Friday July 12, 2019 - 12:53:00 PM

The alleged problem of drug overdosing has justifiably received lots of attention. According to the official count over 70,000 drug users die each year. Hundreds of thousands of lives have already been lost. And unless very strict no nonsense measures are taken, the numbers who will be buried will grow.

The drug problem is certainly related to socioeconomic status, particularly as a result of poverty and unemployment. That is why some refer to the drug habit as a disease of despair. Also, there are many who become hooked on the habit to cope with pain regardless of their class status. Whatever, we should not jump to the conclusion that it is only the overdose that is responsible for the death of drug users. The reason that the overdosing explanation is inadequate is apparent when we take a look at how these deaths are counted. 

Technically speaking, an overdose implies excessive drug use, such as consuming more drugs than a medical prescription allows. But surprise, surprise! That is not how the aggregate numbers are calculated. ALL deaths reported to the FDA are assumed to be the result of overdoses. The rationale is that if anyone dies from the drug no matter how small the consumption, it was excessive for that individual. As the medical profession explains, "A dose that is still within the range of acceptable medical use may be too much for their bodies to handle." So if someone who consumed drugs died only from a trifle amount, it is nevertheless considered an overdose. The implications are that there are no such phenomena as drug deaths other than users taking an excessive amount. Of course, this assumption, not surprisingly, is favored by the Pharmaceutical industry. 

The grim reality is that drug consumption that is within the acceptable medical range still kills many users. But it is not necessarily because of the physical liabilities of the drug users. Some of the drugs are unsafe no matter who is consuming them. Here are a couple of worrisome illustrations of the problems with unsafe drugs. One company that marketed a dangerous drug named SUBSYS has been sued by five states including California because they were convinced it was unsafe. This drug had not been approved by the FDA. It was mainly responsible for over 900 deaths in a five year period. 

Despite the company being guilty of serious criminal acts, which included bribing doctors and defrauding the federal government, the only penalties were fines. No executives served prison sentences. 

High on the list of major killers is the pain relief drug called Oxycontin. Tests showed that the drug is safe when used ONLY for short term treatment. But a major pharmaceutical corporation successfully persuaded the FDA to allow the drug to be used for long term treatment as well as expanding its use to just about anyone with chronic ailments.  

There was concern that its long term use could be dangerous. Nevertheless, the FDA ignored the law that forbids the sale of drugs unless their safety and effectiveness are proven. On a 60 minute program about drug abuse, Ed Thompson, an executive who had managed and produced drugs for the pharmaceutical corporations, decided to break ranks to denounce the industry as well as the FDA. He described the pharmaceutical industry in his own words as corrupt and, immoral. With regard to the drugs that he was familiar with, especially important is his comment that "There's extreme evidence of harms and deaths when you use them". 

There are many other drugs that are dangerous as well. The most widely produced is the synthetic drug called fentanyl. The number of deaths due to fentanyl has been rising rapidly. Among the more than 70,000 deaths, 26,000 die each year. Fentanyl related deaths have been rising rapidly, and now accounts for over a third of all reported drug deaths. The actual mortality figure, is probably higher because this drug is injected in other drugs, including heroin, to make them stronger. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and many times that of heroin. One result is that drug users, who are unaware when the heroin is laced with Fentanyl, may be inadvertently taking a deadly dose. 

The main problem that drug users confront is the lack of regulation. Substantial amounts of fentanyl come from some of the 160,000 unregulated pharmaceutical manufactures or chemists in China. 

The problem of irresponsibility persists in the United States. A Kaiser Foundation newsletter (KHN) details how the FDA and medical doctors have allowed fentanyl to fall into the hands of thousands of inappropriate patients. Yet even when the FDA and the drug companies became aware of the problems they took no action. Also, according to the journal of the American Medical Association, the FDA and the pharmaceuticals failed to adequately monitor the restricted use of this drug. 

Because drug sales are very profitable, the temptation to ignore the laws is very strong. A purchase of several thousand dollars of fentanyl in China could yield up to $1.5 million dollars in the United States. 

What should we be doing about this incredible problem? In addition to pressuring the establishment and publicizing the misconduct of the FDA, we must challenge a deeply embedded feature of our culture, There is tendency to blame victims for the problems they are suffering Instead, let us keep our eyes and ears open to confront those who blame the loudest. 

Clearly, unregulated drugs cannot be good for anybody's health. They serve only to fill the pockets of the greedy. 

P.S: If you are interested in a more detailed article on the problems with fentanyl, see "The Progressive" magazine, June/July 2019 issue.