Overdose deaths should have been a public scandal before Middle America became a victim

Overdose deaths should have been a public scandal before Middle America became a victim
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A hundred years ago, 50 million people around the world died from “Spanish Influenza,” with an estimated 675,000 Americans killed by the virus.

Forty years ago, HIV/AIDS was discovered among Haitian immigrants to the United States, even as it was affecting masses of American intravenous drug abusers, unprotected sexual adventurers and people infected by innocuous blood transfusions. Worldwide, by 2017, more than 77 million people were estimated to have been infected with HIV/AIDS and more than 35 million had died; more than 675,000 of those were Americans. 


Now, for the first time in U.S. history, American life expectancy has fallen two years in a row — and one of the causes is another epidemic. This time, however, it is not the “flu” or “mystery” diseases like HIV/AIDs. It is the tragedy of addiction and, in some cases, stupidity in the self-indulgent use of illegal drugs and prescription pain-killers.

More Americans — more than 70,000 in 2017, according to U.S. health authorities — die annually from overdoses. That is more than the number of Americans killed during the entire war in Vietnam, from 1961 to 1975. 

In far too many cases, these deaths by overdose are not from illegal narcotics like heroin, fentanyl or cocaine; many overdose deaths are from flagrant misuse of otherwise legal, prescription-based pain-killing drugs.

Certainly, the development of a legal painkiller is not by itself criminal or stupid. Neither is the judicious use of pain-killing medications. What is criminal is the heavy over-prescription by licensed physicians, the over-marketing and distribution to small towns of millions of doses of what the street has labeled “hillbilly heroin."

The shocking extent of this scandalous situation was underscored Wednesday by the announcement of federal indictments of 60 people — including 31 doctors and nearly 20  other medical professionals — in at least seven states. According to prosecutors, those cases involve some 350,000 prescriptions and 32 million — 32 million! — pills.

Stupidity permeates every segment of the population — from poor to rich, from white to black, Asian to  Hispanic. When drug overdose deaths were limited to minority men and women and to poor whites, few people cared. Yet, when the overdose epidemic swept across white Middle America — out of the long-overlooked Rust Belt and Appalachian states of Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even New Hampshire, and into wealthier, suburban communities and states — the political panic erupted.

Today’s panic resembles that which exploded during the Vietnam War, when the American press discovered that many U.S. forces in Southeast Asia were using hashish, marijuana and heroin, at ranks ranging from draftee privates to senior enlisted and commissioned officers. Marijuana use had crossed the line; it had become a middle-class problem.

The same has now happened with painkillers, and that has led to an expansion of heroin use in many parts of white Middle America. In many places, heroin is now less expensive than oxycodone. Heroin used to come exclusively from two places — the Middle East (the infamous “French Connection”) and the Golden Triangle (Burma-Thailand-Laos) of Southeast Asia. Being thousands of miles away added significantly to the cost of heroin on American streets.

Today, the smarter Mexican drug cartels have cast aside traditional narcotics suppliers from South America, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia and have taken over supply for heroin production and distribution, resulting in lower heroin prices that are complemented with the inclusion of a new deadly, powerful supplement — Chinese-produced fentanyl. 

Additionally, the Mexican cartels overpowered U.S. motorcycle gangs that pioneered the illegal crystal methamphetamine market in California, retiring them to unimportant battles between the “Mongols” and the “Hell’s Angels.”

Mexicans now produce and distribute crystal meth throughout North America.

Aiding and abetting Mexican control of illicit narcotics is the oxycodone epidemic owned and operated by legitimate American  developers and patent holders, doctors and pharmacies, all infatuated by obscene profits.

Defenders of the suicide-prone, drug-using segment of white middle-class America are attempting to divert attention from their own class, by suggesting “huge” increases in drug use and overdose deaths among the poor and minorities.

Perhaps those of us who don’t misuse or overdose on drugs should not be overly introspective about those who voluntarily kill themselves with pain-killing pills or by snorting and injecting illicit heroin spiked with fentanyl.

But we should be concerned if medical professionals, pharmaceutical manufacturers and others are helping to lead Americans, whether rich or poor and regardless of race, into a life — and death — of addiction.

Shamefully, we should have been concerned much earlier, when seemingly it was just the poor and minorities who were the victims.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of “The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade” (Floricanto Press, 2016) and “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans” (Floricanto Press, 2019). He formerly wrote for the New American News Service of the New York Times. Follow him on Twitter @sdric.