The Opioid Crisis in the United States: A Corporate Crime?

Drug overdose deaths in the US, notably opioid overdoses, skyrocketed from under 10,000 per year in the 1980s to 100,000 in 2021. The crisis began with the FDA’s approval of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin Painkiller in 1995, claimed as non-addictive without proper evidence. Subsequent aggressive marketing led to widespread addiction. Labeled as criminal acts of profit-driven corporations and a co-opted FDA, these actions resulted in significant damage with a reported 1 million deaths and cost of $2 trillion, prompting sanctions and funding to combat the crisis.

For most of the 1980s drug overdose deaths in the United States were fairly steady, well under 10 000 deaths per year. 

Then, in the 1990s, deaths rose sharply. By 2000 nearly 20 000 people were dying from overdoses annually. In 2021 the number peaked at 100, 000, a 500% increase over the decade. 

To put this in context, over the past 25 years more than a million people in the U.S. have died from drug overdoses. This is more people than died in both world wars combined. 

Most of these deaths are caused by opioid overdoses. These deaths are from both natural opiates such as morphine and heroin, and synthetic compounds which have similar properties. 

When did the opioid crisis begin?

The crisis began with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin Painkiller drug in 1995. This drug was designed to be slow release. Purdue claimed that the slow release design would prevent it from being addictive. However, they made this claim without proper evidence. They conducted no clinical trials on how addictive or prone to abuse the drug might be. 

Image of box of Oxycontin pills.

Before the release of OxyContin opioids had been used only in limited cases. They were only administered to cancer patients, those undergoing more invasive surgery and for end-of-life pain relief. 

However Purdue engaged in aggressive direct marketing campaigns to doctors. The company encouraged Doctors to prescribe OxyContin for less serious conditions such as arthritis, back pain and sports injuries. 

What effect did OxyContin have?

Prescriptions peaked in 2012 at more than 255 million in the U.S. that year. OxyContin, and other similar opioids such as Vicodin create a huge new class of addicts. By 2011 OyxContin was the leading cause of drug-related deaths in the US. 

This is known as the first wave of the crises which also drove the second wage. Many addicts found prescription pain killers too expensive or too difficult to buy and so turned to heroin.  Interviews with injecting urban drug users Between 2008-09 found that 86% of them had used prescription painkillers first. The illegal heroine trade expanded greatly because of this, as did the number of heroin overdoses. 

In 2013 came the third crisis. This was caused by illegal, synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. This led to a huge increase in overdose deaths as the strength of the final street product varied widely. 

Why did the crisis happen?

There are several causes, all of which seem fundamentally linked to the Marxist theory of crime…

The chief executives of Purdue Pharma were primarily concerned with making profit, rather than the safety of people. They didn’t do proper trials to check the risks of addiction and sold their product hard to doctors. 

The Food and Drug Administration had been co-opted by the pharmaceutical industry. The FDA regulatory who oversaw the approval of Oxy, Dr Curtis Wright, left the agency shortly afterwards and took a job at Purdue. 

The U.S. healthcare system prefers prescribing rather than other solutions. This is because it puts profits of corporations over the health and wellbeing of ordinary people. 

Many of these overdose deaths are deaths of despair. They are linked to social ills such as poverty, declining wages, and declining stability in social life. 

What is being done now?

The U.S. has tightened conditions for prescribing opioid Painkillers, but the levels are still high.

They have Sanctions on Chinese companies who make chemicals used to make Fentanyl, 

They have allocated $5 Billion for mental health care and treating addiction.

Analysis: supporting evidence for the Marxist perspective on crime…?

This seems to be a case study which strongly supports the Marxist theory of crime

It clearly shows that all classes commit crime. Here we have both the Corporate elite and the government working together. 

Marxism says the ‘crimes’ (or harms) the elite does are much greater than working class crime. With over 1 million dead as a result of Oxycontin this harmful act is extreme.  There were 100 000 overdose deaths in 2022 – 68% of them linked to Opiods, 2 million addicts, monetary cost $2 Trillion, misery can’t calculate. (According to the Stanford-Lancet Commission). 

The Sackler Family managed to get immunity from prosecution. They have to pay $8 billion in damages. However they have been given a number of years to pay this, and they will probably make that from returns on their investments.

Effectively they haven’t been punished for causing 1 million deaths.

Purdue Pharam and the Opioid crisis: find out more.

Netflix recently released an excellent series: Painkiller which covers this case study very well!