The United States has set a new, grim record: Throughout 2020, the scourge of opioid addiction raged alongside Covid-19, taking 93,000 lives – the largest one-year increase ever recorded.
Drug overdose deaths have been steadily increasing in the U.S. for decades, taking more lives each year than car accidents, HIV/AIDS and gun violence (an impressive statistic if you know anything about gun violence in America). Yet despite this massive and preventable loss of life, mainstream media has left out of its coverage the role of manufacturers, prescribers, and the criminal legal system in perpetuating the overdose epidemic.
It is well known now that manufacturers like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson fueled opioid addictions in the U.S. by deliberately downplaying the risk of addiction and bribing doctors into prescribing their medications to patients who did not need them. In a by ProPublica, it was revealed how opioid manufacturers like Purdue Pharma aggressively defended against any negative criticisms of its drug Oxycontin, maintaining that its drug was safe and had no addictive qualities. This, of course, turned out to be false. These companies have been the subject of numerous lawsuits for several years as states have sought accountability for the massive loss of life.
In spite of the evidence against these corrupt companies and doctors, the mainstream media has continued to frame the prescription opioid abuse crisis as a criminal issue, centered largely on illicitly obtained opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, rather than as a public health problem. Focusing solely on the criminal aspect of the opioid epidemic does not provide the American public with an accurate understanding of the problem. The current opioid crisis was largely fueled by the pharmaceutical industry’s drive for profits.
The crisis was also amplified by a dangerous cycle of over-policing and criminalization. Almost nonexistent in the mainstream media’s coverage of this crisis is role of the American criminal legal and policing systems in perpetuating addiction and overdose deaths. In an with Democracy Now! on June 30, Truthout Editor in Chief Maya Schenwar, whose sister died of an overdose in 2020, emphasized the damaging effects of criminalization on people struggling with addiction. Schenwar explained how the cycle of arrest, prison time, legally mandated rehabilitation, and criminalization increases a person’s chance of relapse and overdose.
The excessive association with illicit activity opioids have received from the media has also been detrimental in its own way. An revealed that the negative associations with opioids have made it difficult for those actually in need of prescription painkillers to receive them. A lack of legitimate, prescribed pain management led people to other, uncontrolled forms of pain management, thus, despite opioid prescription rates having gone down since 2012, there has been and in overdoses.
Amid the movement to defund the police, informing the public of the negative effects of over-policing on the opioid crisis is more important than ever. The American people developing a deeper understanding of the importance of public resources such as housing, healthcare, and education in preventing drug addiction will be just as crucial in fighting the epidemic as holding manufacturers responsible.
It is the duty of mainstream media outlets to tell the whole truth about a plague that has caused immense misery. Outlets must examine the role of manufacturers, prescribers, and the policing systems in the massive loss of life to drug overdoses. As of July 2021, the Sackler family – the owners of Purdue Pharma – is moving closer to an out of court that will likely absolve them of any accountability in the opioid crisis. It is the duty of media to hold such companies accountable and remind the authorities that the broken U.S. justice system must protect the citizens.
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