Op-Ed: The Opioid-Addiction Industrial Complex, America’s Dirty Secret

Oxycodone pills. John Moore/Getty Images

Turn on any radio or television channel and you will hear a report or an advertisement about the opioid addiction crisis in New Jersey and across the country.

If you stay tuned to that channel, you will then hear an advertisement promoting a prescription drug to help with your pain issues.

Keep listening and you will hear about a new prescription drug that will help with the side-effects of the opioid prescription drug you heard about previously. Following that is yet another promotion for a treatment center to help your addiction to the same prescription drugs.

If this scenario weren’t so serious and so deadly, it would be too ludicrous to believe. Yet this is the vicious and deadly cycle underlying the Opioid-Addiction Industrial Complex.

The United States is in a crisis of its own making. We are by far the largest consumer of opioids on the planet, including 99 percent of the world’s supply of hydrocodone. Last year, doctors wrote approximately 300 million opioid pain pill prescriptions, a number nearly matching the 330 million people who live in the United States. This is as clear a model for addiction crisis as possible.

Last year, abuse of prescription pain drugs killed 20,101 people, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. That’s more than two people per hour. This is more than all of the U.S. casualties associated with 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined — and this happens every year.

So why isn’t more being done to address this crisis? Money, power, influence and corruption. The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture these addictive drugs make more than $24 billion annually from pain medication. Drug treatment centers make over $35 billion annually. America’s prison systems, both private and publicly run, are a $74 billion industry. And the heroin provided by the drug cartels is an estimated $50 billion enterprise.

This is not to suggest there is actual collusion among these industries. But the motivation to dramatically curtail prescription opioids, which is the number one “gateway” to heroin and addiction, is underwhelming.

One safe solution to address pain management, without the addictive qualities of opioids and with zero recorded overdoses ever, is medical cannabis. Not surprisingly though, corporations that make up the Opioid-Addiction Industrial Complex are opposed to legal medical cannabis.

According to a recent poll, 93 percent of Americans support medical cannabis. Yet those that stand to lose the most financially vehemently oppose it. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign donations opposing medical cannabis efforts. Why? They stand to lose a significant chunk of their $24 billion in annual opioid pain pill sales if people switch.

New Jersey is home to 14 of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Certainly there are good, honest and hardworking people who work for “Big Pharma,” just as there are good people who work for drug treatment centers and our prison systems. Nonetheless, we have a real crisis at hand and the best solution is for people to avoid getting addicted to opioids in the first place. The long and dark road of opioid addiction has devastated countless families for far too long.

Fortunately, despite the efforts by special interests, access to medical cannabis is on the rise across the country. In fact, states that have enacted effective medical cannabis laws have seen a 25 percent reduction in opioid overdoses.

Through scientific research and studies from states that have legalized cannabis, we are re-learning that cannabis is a healthy alternative to opioid pain pills and that the concerns of some are based on misinformation that produced outdated and unjustified policy.

If there is to be a comprehensive shift in America’s addiction to opioids then there needs to be a comprehensive shift in how we view alternatives to opioids and pain management.

The constant advertising of opioids must be curtailed and the aggressive and sometimes illegal marketing of opioids by pharmaceutical salespeople to doctors’ offices must be stopped. And just as importantly, healthy alternatives such as cannabis must be part of the solution and just as accessible to the average patient as opioids.

We can do better. We must do better. With the right solution that includes real choices, we will do better.

Scott Rudder, a former mayor and New Jersey state assemblyman, is president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association and a partner at Burton Trent Public Affairs.

Op-Ed: The Opioid-Addiction Industrial Complex, America’s Dirty Secret