Leland Thoburn: A legacy of drug exploitation

##The British drove the opium trade throughout Asia from the late 1700s to early 1900s. Pictured here, from Library of Congress files, is one of the ugly results — an opium den operating openly in Manila, Philippines.
##The British drove the opium trade throughout Asia from the late 1700s to early 1900s. Pictured here, from Library of Congress files, is one of the ugly results — an opium den operating openly in Manila, Philippines.

In the late 1700s, Britain seized control of India, then the world’s largest producer of opium.

With more than 300 million Chinese just over the border, British businessmen smelled opportunity. By the mid-1800s, they had boosted opium trade with China alone to a level that would exceed the entire worldwide opium trade at the dawn of the current century.

Ruling interests in China and Britain were outraged.

“Opium has a harm; opium is a poison, undermining our good customs and morality,” proclaimed the Chinese emperor, who fought and lost two wars, and eventually lost the throne, trying to excise the scourge.

British prime minister Gladstone joined him in railing against the evils being committed by the British in the name of greed. But greed won.

At the dawn of the 20th century, an estimated 27% of China’s male population was addicted to opium. When the Communist Party ascended to power in 1949, the addiction count was estimated at 20 million.

One of Mao Zedong’s most urgent priorities was ending China’s “century of shame.” His state-inflicted detoxification regimen amounted to a death sentence for many, but he succeeded.

While Mao was eliminating China as a significant market, the god of greed was busy making up the difference elsewhere.

In 1806, a German chemist developed morphine, a derivative of opium. In 1898, heroin was derived from morphine, and the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer introduced a heroin-based cough syrup in the United States.

It took 26 years for America to catch on and outlaw the drug.

By then, it was too late. Heroin had sunk its roots deeply into the American culture.

Meanwhile, German scientists developed oxycodone, a synthetic version of opium.

Oxycodone would be given to wounded soldiers on the battlefields of World War II. It was also embraced by Adolf Hitler, a notorious addict.

After World War II, with Germany in ruins, the mantle of opioid development passed on. In 1959, a Belgian pharmaceutical company developed fentanyl, another synthetic opiate. And in 1996, Purdue Pharma, an American company, patented its own oxycodone derivative, OxyContin.

Opiates, both natural and synthetic, had long been plagued by two fatal flaws: They were highly addictive, and both their euphoric and analgesic effects were short-lived, requiring frequent dosing.

Purdue marketed OxyContin with the promise that it was not very addictive and its effects were longlasting. Neither of the promises proved true, but they were effective in selling OxyContin to the medical community and, by extension, the general public.

In 2006, 10 years after Purdue introduced OxyContin, the company and three of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges for minimizing its addictive risks.

But Purdue continued sailing along on a sea of deception. In 2013, more than 53 million prescriptions for OxyContin were filled in the United States, roughly one for every six citizens.

By 2019, the dam of outrage burst and Purdue found itself facing more than 2,900 lawsuits.

During one court hearing, the judge tried to read into the record some of the letters the court had received. One was from a woman whose firefighter husband had started taking OxyContin to relieve the pain of a back injury.

Prescription led to addiction, which led to unemployment, which led to foreclosure, which led to suicide. His wife was now facing Stage 4 cancer alone.

But the judge had to stop reading. He was too moved to continue speaking.

Not so the Sackler family. The owners of Purdue Pharma denied all responsibility for a crisis that had claimed 500,000 American lives by that point.

In the years before the litigation, the Sacklers had extracted more than $10 billion from Purdue, paid their taxes, and then stashed the balance overseas. When it came time to settle, that money was beyond the court’s reach.

They did agree to forfeit $6 billion in other funds, which bought them immunity from criminal liability and an end to litigation.

As part of the settlement, Purdue Pharma will be no more. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for OxyContin.

The rights associated with its manufacture, marketing and sales will soon be transferred to another company. So it will continue to be marketed and distributed in the United States, alongside its brother medication, fentanyl.

Fentanyl is another synthetic opiate, and it is exceptionally dangerous. It is 50 times more potent than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

It is so powerful that even the smallest dosage error can be fatal. Because the amount required to overdose varies from person to person, illicit use of fentanyl is like asking death to be your dance partner.

Fentanyl acts by interfering with the neural pathways of the central nervous system, altering the body’s perception of pain.

Pain, however, is not the only bodily function served by these pathways. Heartbeat and breathing can also be suppressed.

At that point, people die. This is what happened recently here in McMinnville.

On Feb. 10, four McMinnville residents were hospitalized for fentanyl poisoning. One victim, a woman, succumbed. Another victim remained in intensive care for several days.

Fentanyl, like all synthetic opioids, is easily manufactured. And in a gruesome version of “what goes around comes around,” China has become the main source of its illicit supply.

Mexico is a close second. India is also a significant source.

The problem has become so acute that all Yamhill County schools have been provided with a supply of Narcan, a drug that saves lives by reversing toxic opioid effects.

This is not an overreaction. It has been estimated that one in 30 high school seniors in America has experimented with these highly addictive drugs.

In addition to the illegitimate manufacturers, medicinal fentanyl is manufactured by legitimate pharmaceutical companies worldwide. But lest you think the god of greed has been mollified, one of these manufacturers, Teva, entered into a $4.25 billion settlement with U.S. authorities last year on grounds of deceptive marketing.

Perhaps borrowing from the Purdue playbook, Teva falsely promised that its fentanyl offered greater benefits and a lower addiction risk. Teva was also charged with bypassing controls for safe distribution, and with marketing fentanyl to non-approved users.

Oopsie. Just the year before, 76,238 Americans died of fentanyl poisoning, more than the American death toll for the entire Vietnam war.

As one researcher noted, “This is more like a poisoning outbreak than a traditional drug overdose crisis.”

If you think this amounts to an indictment of Big Pharma, you are right.

Many of the people who make the decisions, who drive the market, are themselves driven by greed. If you don’t know who Martin Shkreli is, Google “pharma bro.”

While cute little cartoon characters implore viewers to “ask your doctor,” Big Pharma has been pumping out drugs in such volume that traces can now be found in our groundwater. Better living through chemistry this is not.

I recall reading an article in American Heritage magazine, sometime back in the 1990s, that made the point that every recreational drug in America had been developed, introduced or effectively promoted by the medical-pharmaceutical complex. This included cocaine, marijuana, morphine, heroin and the cornucopia of synthetic drugs such as LSD, ecstasy and angel dust.

Each of these chemical Frankensteins was jolted to life in the bowels of Big Pharma. And now we can add OxyContin and fentanyl to the list.


Guest writer Leland Thoburn is a retired business consultant who has been making his home in McMinnville’s West Hills neighborhood for 11 years. He has been a writer all his life, but didn’t start writing professionally until 2007. He has had more than 100 articles and short stories published since that time, the articles focusing mostly on civil liberties. 


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