There is talk that the government will soon file lawsuits against the pharmaceutical firms that make opioid painkillers. They claim that these companies have failed to warn patients about the addictive nature of their product, which in turn allowed them to amass huge profits.
This is not the only plan to solve the opioid crisis. Others are calling upon doctors to taper off doses of medications after one year to prevent addiction and abuse. Such schemes promise to slay the opioid-abuse dragon that is wreaking havoc upon countless individuals, families and communities.
The problem with these solutions is that they do not address the causes of the problem but only suppress the effects. In this case, it just makes the problem worse.
Opioid painkillers are not the problem. They have a proper role in the care of individuals. They are legal drugs needed by patients with chronic pain conditions. They do carry a risk of dependency, which can be mitigated by their correct use. However, if their doses are curtailed or eliminated, many individuals will suffer much and needlessly.
Those Who Abuse Opioids
The vast majority of proper users do not abuse these painkillers or suffer from overdoses. According to one study, the risk of opioid overdose by chronic pain patients who use them as directed is very low. It accounts for less than 0.3 percent of prescribed doses annually. This is hardly the kind of abuse responsible for all the dire headlines that talk about the destruction of lives and communities.
The next category of users is made up of those with mental illnesses or major medical conditions that can overdose because of impaired judgment or lack of supervision. This is still a medical problem that comes from lack of care. However, it is not the cause of the epidemic.
The real problem comes from those who abuse painkillers by making wrong choices. This is no longer a medical problem but a moral one. It is caused by bad personal decisions, vices and behaviors.
According to research by Kaiser Permanente and the Denver Health Medical Center, most abuse of opioids occurs when compounded by moral problems. Patients in the midst of chaotic personal conditions are one high-risk category. Yet others are those who mix their opioids with other sedatives, drugs and alcohol. Those suffering from high emotional stress will also tend to abuse.
These abusers also include those who engage in fraud. Patients will purchase pills via over-prescription or illegal pill mills. People use Medicaid funds to buy and resell them to addicts who crave them.
A Moral Problem Becomes a Legal One
Thus, most abuse stems from moral choices between the correct use of opioids as prescribed by doctors and patients’ desire to escape personal stress and suffering by increasing their use. Abuse involves intemperance, in which people allow their appetites to rule. It happens when people abandon virtue and allow families or relationships to break up. Others wish to profit off the vices of others by selling opioids. These are all moral problems that have medical consequences.
As a result, abusers suffer when their lives break down. Their families suffer. Communities suffer. Government officials are pressured to take action.
Thus, the medical problem that became a moral issue now becomes a legal case. Officials propose legislation that seeks to limit the supply of opioids but not the desire for them. They will provide educational programs to tell people how dangerous abuse can be—even though most people know abusing any drug is dangerous.
The Failure of Legal Measures
These solutions do not involve developing moral character and virtue. In fact, they create a hell for abusers and non-abusers alike. They impose a mountain of regulations on society to limit access to opioids. Such measures can be helpful, but addicts usually find ways around the rules by immersing themselves in a hellish subculture. They can then resort to more desperate and illegal means to feed their frenzied addictions.
Meanwhile, those who suffer the most from the opioid crisis are the patients that need them. They are the ones that must comply with all the new regulations and rules designed to stop the abusers. The hysteria around opioid abuse has prompted many doctors to play it safe and under-prescribe them. They will try to eliminate opioid use or suggest painful alternative treatments that may not be proper for the malady. Some sufferers find an ever smaller pool of doctors who are willing to prescribe needed medications leading to what are called “opioid refugees” who wander about the country looking for experts willing to treat them.
Inevitably, the strong government measures fail to stop the problem. Then, the next phase of the cycle begins. It consists of finding someone to blame—other than the addicts.
Finding a Scapegoat
In this case, the culpable are the pharmaceutical companies who ruthlessly seek profits from the weaknesses of others. As in all things, there may be some abuse by the firms, but it is often exaggerated by leftist media. The legal problem becomes an ideological one. The crisis is dressed up in terms of Marxist class struggle. Let the rich companies pay the bill for the ruined lives of those poor unfortunate people who abuse their products.
The opioid crisis has thus evolved from a medical to moral to legal to ideological problem. People will do anything to avoid putting the blame on themselves.
Such is the fate of a society without virtue. When people live lives of unrestraint, their passions take over and throw them into the misery of stress, broken relationships and loneliness. When they reject all suffering which is the result of their follies, they go to the extremes to escape the pain. When the pain cannot be subdued, they look to throw the blame upon others and seek recompense for it.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Soceity--Where We've Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.