Last week the West Virginia newspaper Charleston-Gazette Mail published an article on their investigation into the 1,728 West Virginians who have died from overdoses from hydrocodone and oxycodone. The report found that in the six-year period of time when these overdoses occurred drug companies shipped nearly 780 million of these painkillers to the state, many of which made their way into poorer communities, which have been devastated by the opioid epidemic. This is reflected in the year 2016 which has seen a significant rise in overdose related deaths at a state and national level.
This report seems to substantiate something that many social justice advocates and community leaders in poor communities around the country have been saying for years—that poor communities are specifically targeted by drug companies and illicit drug cartels for distribution of their products. That poor communities are disproportionately affected by these drugs. While in the past these claims were always dismissed by some socially concocted justification for why this occurs, like these poor communities were somehow morally-less than their richer counterparts, this new finding shows that the reason for the increase in drug usage is because of specific targeting that is taking place.
Before I steamroll this topic and do not give the complexity its proper due, I do want to say that in any market economy, product goes where there is demand, and so part of the reason why communities like those effected in West Virginia have seen an influx of painkillers is because there must have been some pre-existing demand, but with that said, when a drug as addictive as oxycodone or hydrocodone is made readily available, all rules of logic go out the window. Not to mention that purposefully supplying a rather small population with incredible destructive substances is not only negligent but also morally reprehensible.
There is a reason why these substances are highly controlled and while yes these distributors were sending their product to licensed pharmacies, at what point does someone take a step back and say, ‘we are sending a lot of pills to these communities and a lot of people are dying, maybe we should do something.” At no point in the 6-year period that the Gazette looked at, did this occur and as overdoses increased, the amount of pills being sent followed suit.
The Gazette’s probe found that in West Virginia there were enough pills to give “every man, woman and child” 433 pain pills. That number is astronomically large and it caused some West Virginia counties, like Wyoming County, to lead the nation in overdose rates. Yet, as Wyoming County saw an explosion of overdoses, shipments of Oxycontin doubled, with no distributor asking questioning or thinking twice about what they were doing.
This isn’t just speculation either, because for many years distributors of these drugs have sought to keep their records of sale private. They have brought the Gazette to court in the past in order to keep this information from the public, and it isn’t hard to see why they would want to do this. The evidence is particularly damaging, like how they shipped 9 million pills to Kermit, West Virginia, a town with a population of 932, in just a two-year period. I’ll do the math for you and that comes out to 4,828 pills per person in the town, per year. That means that each person in Kermit could have taken 13 pills per day for 2 years and not run out. Really think about for that minute and see if you don’t think that’s a little much.
To say that this was done by accident and that these companies didn’t know what they were doing is just flat out wrong. A lot of the times plausible deniability is enough, but in a case like this, with that much money involved and that many deaths, it just doesn’t stand up. Companies who distribute these types of drugs are aware of what is going on. They are aware because it is their business to be aware. They know where their product is being sold and they know what is going in the nation in regards to their product. Ignorance or capitalism is not an excuse here, because this was willfully and knowingly done. These companies were warned by the DEA over a year ago about the dangerous trends they were seeing in West Virginia and yet nothing was done to stop it. The shipments continued unimpeded and because of it thousands of people died.
As terrible as all this information is, in some ways it brings hope. If we are really going to tackle the opioid epidemic we have seen in this country then we have to get down to the causes and conditions that created it. We have to take a look at the social issues fostering addiction. We have to take a look at the complicity of business in the propagation of it, and we have to take a look at legislation that criminalizes addiction and creates a culture of punishment rather than treatment. We have to truly take a look at all of the moving parts and then, and only then, will be able to forge a new path in fighting addiction that may actually bare fruit.
So while no oxycodone or hydrocodone distributors are probably losing sleep over this, it is important that we now know this information, that we are now aware that our poor communities are being targeted and in turn we can maybe do something about it.
Rose Lockinger is a passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.