The Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health just revised the official tally of drug overdose deaths from 2014 (it will likely be revised yet again) and the results reveal that four people a day are dying in the Commonwealth State. Vermont now investigates four drug-related fatalities a week.
Imagine the public response if ebola or tainted meat or rat poison were killing FOUR people a day in Massachusetts. Imagine the panic if a viral pandemic had taken the lives of nearly 2,500 throughout New England in a single year.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker released a statement about the revised tally in which he talks about “better analysis of where and why people succumb to the disease.”
Why people succumb? Such a question is based on a flawed premise and we should all resist the urge to agree with and to legitimize that premise.
People do not become addicted to opioids. I want to repeat that statement: People do not become addicted to opioids.
Opioids addict people.
It’s not semantics or word games. If meat is tainted with salmonella, we don’t examine why people who ate the meat succumb to food poisoning. If people are exposed to and infected by ebola, we don’t set out to examine why they succumb to the process of infection.
Addiction and infection and poisoning share a primary component: they all require exposure to a poisoning agent. No exposure, no illness, no tragedy. Is there a moral component or personal choice involved in nonmedical opioid use? Perhaps there is, if that’s where it feels good to put your focus. But have the courage to follow that moral culpability backward up the chain, from the cold table in the medical examiner’s office, back up to the needle, back along to the dealer who made heroin available and cheap when the Oxycontin supply shriveled, further back along the chain to the people diverting Oxycontin to the illicit market for profit, all the way up to the coffers of Purdue Pharma, who in 1996 flooded the pharmaceutical market with Oxycontin while lying about its addictive risks. And then follow the chain right back to its inaugural link to the $14 BILLION fortune that just landed the Sackler family — owners of Purdue Pharma — on the Forbes 2015 Richest Families list.
If we’re going examine the where and why of the opiate apocalypse, the foundational premise of our questions should be sound. And if we resist active community response to the drug addiction epidemic based on claims of morality, we should face those claims head on and responsibly by examining the entire chain of culpability.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that Massachusetts will soon announce that 206 additional fatalities have been added to the 2014 tally of drug users who died before they had a shot at drug rehab and addiction treatment.