The “opioid crisis” is gripping the nation. President Trump has announced that it is a national emergency requiring extraordinary measures or something. In 2015, 33000 people died from overdoses of opiate drugs.
The narrative of the opioid crisis epidemic goes like this:
“Doctors were always reluctant to prescribe opioid pain medications because they were aware of the risks of addiction. But the makers of OxyContin, the Sackler family, created a marketing campaign based on creating confusion between codeine, a relatively weak painkiller, and oxycodone, a relatively strong one. They also lobbied the FDA to make it seem like time-release pills are less addictive, paid doctors to give talks claiming pain is under-treated, and did other bad stuff. Doctors started to prescribe tons of pain meds, regulation of pill-mill doctors was lax, and tons of innocent people’s lives were ruined by addiction while the Sackler family lined their pockets with 14 billion dollars.”
But while the Slacker family are clearly shitheads, their behavior is impeccable under the logic of capitalism. The reason we have an “opioid epidemic” isn’t because of the unscrupulous behavior of a few people who wanted to get rich. As such, the way to “solve” this crisis isn’t to force the said family to subsidize addiction treatment centers. This narrative is a red herring in the fullest sense—a distraction from the truth, which is as always much less palatable to everyone involved, and harder to fix.
The truth is that when people get addicted, they are getting something from their drug of choice that is preferable, for the moment, to their regular, un-addicted existence. Relatively content people don’t usually look to escape their reality, they invest and participate in it, enjoy it and try to suss it out. The fact that so many of us are trying our damnest to escape our supposedly state of the art reality gives away the truth.
Our present way of life in 2017 is traumatic for many of us, for different reasons. Psychologically and emotionally, we aren’t built to live the way we do. The biggest problems for so many of us are loneliness, aimlessness, and disconnection from life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, opiate drugs alleviate these precise feelings. Drug users find that opiates envelop them in a physical, psychological, and emotional warmth and security.
In highschool, I was taught about experiments where rats where given cocaine and heroin at the press of a button. The rats would then just keep pressing the button to get instant drugs until they starved to death. Turns out, things are not quite so black and white: in subsequent experiments the rats would be offered the option of returning to their rat brothers and cousins. Yeah, I bet you thought that they had that option the whole time, as I did! When they told us about this in highschool, we were led to assume these rats are the equivalents of regular, innocent people—normal in every way, spending their innocent days playing with other rats and munching on garbage and babies, or whatever it is rats do. Then one day, one of them spots a new object in the rat-house: a big shiny red button. The curious rat pushes the button, and its brain is flooded with dope. From that moment on, this rat is gonna ignore its rat friends and rat pleasures, stand in front of that button and press it until it keels over. Another one bites the dust—drugs are awful, bro.
But that’s not what happened at all. The rats were kept isolated in tiny cages, and when these miserable animals were given drugs, they took them. In experiments where the rats were kept with other rats in bigger cages, they didn’t. More than that, when the rats that were addicted to drugs in small isolation cages were returned to their groups, they would choose to go through withdrawal and do regular rat things rather than stay on drugs. Rats prefer doing regular rat things with their rat friends and relatives to getting opiates and cocaine on demand, even if already addicted.
People prefer doing regular people things with friends and relatives over becoming (and remaining) addicted to hard drugs as well. Count that as axiomatic.
What are these regular people things? Whatever individual things we like to do, we all need to have connection to others of our own kind and to ourselves. This means physical and emotional connection, and for at least some, intellectual connection. That may well be enough. Sometimes purpose and self-esteem are mentioned, but I’ve begun to think that these arise organically on their own from a meaningful relationship to our family and community.
When people are choosing to get high consistently and in large numbers, you can bet they are trapped in situations analogous to the rats in tiny isolation cages, physically or psychologically, or both. This being the case, you won’t have much success treating their addiction with methadone or suboxone and therapy. We use drugs because we are isolated and prevented from doing human things with humans, so obviously until our lives are such that we can do these things, we will be inclined to look for any ways to escape the shitty reality we are trapped in. When treatment is successful, it is always because in one way or another the addict is able to get these things back into their life. Otherwise, all you can do is substitute the mechanism by which they will try to escape their realities.
Good luck with that! If improving our lives was on anyone’s agenda, maybe these things would be considered and discussed. It’s not like I’m writing the theory of special relativity here, these things are well known to anyone with half an eye on their world. They are known to scientists who give dope to rats. They are certainly known to whoever is in charge of making sure we continue to work all day and buy shit we don’t need in our free time. Doesn’t look like we’ll be talking about it anytime soon.