America has always had a problem with drugs—mainly, illegal street drugs. Those street drugs, like heroin and cocaine, usually came from some distant places and were imported into our country by crime organizations and then cooked into dozens of variations to squeeze out every last dollar on the streets. We all saw the movies and watched the TV shows. We learned they came from Latin America and South America and the Middle East and made their way ultimately to the big fat, cash rich markets like the United States. The drug lords all looked like drug lords; they typically had foreign names and nicknames like El Chapo, the notorious head of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, who was recently convicted and shipped off for life into a maximum-security federal prison in Colorado. We all knew how to respond to El Chapo. He’s a many-time murderer and an amoral piece of human garbage and we need not have an ounce of sympathy for him.

That was the easy call. We now have a new group of drug lords and they don’t have foreign faces and unpronounceable names. In fact, many of them are listed on stock exchanges, and some are old, respected names in the pharmaceutical fields and they develop and manufacture and distribute many wonderful drugs through many legitimate pharmacies and drug stores and it’s all overseen by the government, meaning the FDA and the DEA—except it’s not. 

The Washington Post in Washington DC has been running a series of articles about the opioid epidemic and the havoc it has created in many states, counties and small cities. We have had more than 100,000 deaths from opioid overdoses. For comparison, we have lost 4,424 American troops in Iraq and another 2,372 in Afghanistan. The opioid epidemic dwarfs our wars in lethality. Has capitalism gone into the illegal drug pushing business? The answer to that question is not so simple. There is a government-maintained database that tracks every pill, who manufactures it, who distributes it and who retails it, and where it is sold and who wrote the prescription. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has maintained the database for almost two decades and its contents have been kept secret. Only recently, after prolonged litigation, was the government forced to give the Washington Post access to the database. You can well understand that the pharmaceutical companies didn’t want the information made public. After all, none of them want to be accused of aiding and abetting a drug epidemic that has practically destroyed so many communities. But the government, meaning the FDA and DEA and the Department of Justice, fought to oppose making this public to the very end. They are the ones who are supposed to be protecting us, so it’s reasonable to ask—why didn’t they? We all talk and write about how drugs have corrupted the Mexican government and now we have to ask, has it corrupted us also? Have we become a Banana Republic like the rest? I strongly recommend you get on Google and type in “Washington Post opioid investigation” and start reading. 

Let me give you some highlights: Three pharma companies manufacture 88 percent of the opioids in the country. Only 15 percent of the pharmacies sell 50 percent of the opioids sold in this country. Some of the hardest hit states in terms of the level of addictions are the western portion of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arizona, and generally in the smaller towns and in the more rural areas and more typically in areas that are economically hurting. Little counties like Clinton County, Ken.; Hardin County, Ill.; Lewis County, Idaho; Onsley County, Ken.; Morton County, Kan. are among the top users per person. The national death rate from opioid is 4.6 people per 100,000 of population. In West Virginia, Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia, the death rate, according to the data, is three times the national average.

The opioid addiction problem is in significant measure primarily a white, rural, low income problem. It can’t escape anyone’s attention that Kentucky is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s state and these are his people. If I was the senator from Kentucky and majority leader of the senate, I would pick up the telephone and have the head of the FDA and the DEA in my office now. I believe he could have dialed back this thing in minutes. No one in politics ignores the majority leader of the senate. If he didn’t make those calls, and didn’t put anyone on the carpet, or threaten hearings, or push for criminal prosecution, well then the only message you could take away is, “Don’t touch these people because they are protected.” Now, I am a partisan Democrat, but on an issue like this neither party has the corner on bad guys. I’m sure there are a whole bunch of Democrats who sup at the Big Pharma trough for political contributions. I know that the study by the Washington Post covered the database from 2006 to 2012, so this represents more than one administration. 

They have shipped opioids in quantities that almost certainly made their way into the illegal markets, and the only reasonable conclusion is they simply didn’t care—as long as they were making lots of money.

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