From Opium to OxyContin: A Century of Addiction
Opium is a sedative and pain-relieving chemical found in the opium poppy. Prior to its controversial use in the 20th century, it had been cultivated for well over 5,000 years – that we know of. For example, one of the earliest known references of opium-culling is from lower Mesopotomia.
By around 3,400 BCE, the Sumerians were referring to opium as “Hul Gil”, or the “joy plant”. The plant would soon make its way to the Assyrians, where the practice of cultivating the poppy would continue as it was later passed along to the Babylonions and Egyptians.
It was Egyptian opium that was first introduced to China by Arab traders in 400 CE.
The Modern Era of Opiates
In the mid-17th century, what is now known as the “Opium Wars” were fought by Great Britain in effort to legalize their control of the Chinese opium trade.
By 1793, the British East India Company had successfully established a monopoly.
By 1905, conservative estimates revealed that 25% of the Chinese population were addicted to opium. During that same time, heroin addiction had risen sharply in the United States. Subsequently, Congress passed a ban on opium.
It wasn’t until 1910 that the Chinese were finally able to convince Great Britain to put an end to the India-China opium trade.
By 1925 however, New York’s Chinatown had an opium black market in full swing, risen from the ashes of the U.S. ban on opium. By the 1930’s, most of illicit heroin in the U.S. was being smuggled from China.
Between the late 1940’s and early 1970’s, Corsican gangsters were in charge of the U.S. heroin market through connection with Mafia drug traffickers. Heroin because easily accessible to users on the streets of New York City.
During the late 60’s during the Vietnam War, opium was being transported by Corsican gangsters to Marseille, France.
There is was refined into heroin, and shipped into the U.S. By then, 75,000 Americans were addicted.
The heroin epidemic was thus in full swing again, especially in Chicago and New York. It continued to spread widely into the 1980’s.
The New Epidemic – Prescription Opioids
Despite prior indisputable evidence, a 1985 study published in the Journal of Pain reported that there was little risk for addiction. This conclusion was based on a sample of just 38 patients. One of the authors of the study subsequently became the head of the American Pain Society. This was one of several non-profit groups funded by Big Pharma, including Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin.
In addition, opioid manufacturers would go on to fund medical education programs and advocacy groups. On the heels of this were aggressive marketing campaigns for drugs such as OxyContin, which were widely touted as non-addictive. They were also indicated for the use of long-term chronic pain.
As a result, opioid prescriptions began flying out of the hands of medical professionals. This, despite all the training they had received about the dangers of opioid addiction – they knew the drugs should only be used for short-term pain relief and terminal illness. And consequently, opioid abuse and overdoses began to rise markedly in the 1990’s and beyond.
But it wasn’t all their fault. The FDA continued to authorize more formulations of opioids over the years. and there was no demand for the compulsory education of opioid prescribers.
There were also no evidence-based treatment guidelines. For years, there were no prescription monitoring databases. There were no watchdogs. Physicians were left to their own devices.
In addition, The Federation of State Medical Boards accepted funds from Big Pharma to produce prescribing guidelines. This should have been a red flag to the medical profession that something wasn’t right.
Given the training on opioids doctors received in medical school, there is no other conclusion to be made other than that prescribers were in collusion with Big Pharma. Moreover, they willfully abandoned their duty, which was to cause no harm to the their patients.
A Sea Change?
As it stands now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have established recommended guidelines for the ethical prescribing of opioid drugs. There are now prescription monitoring databases in nearly every state, although many states do not enforce mandatory use.
In the wake of the opioid crackdown, many of the addicted could no longer receive their medication. Some turned to street drugs, such as heroin, and the highly-potent fentanyl. And now, we once again have a heroin and opioid epidemic on our hands. It waxes and wanes over time, but it just won’t go away.
And there’s been countless more countries, organizations, and political motivations involved in the use of opiates over the last few decades. Certainly, many more than can mentioned due to the constraints of this article. But really, it just comes down to profit. If one can profit from the sale of drugs – whether legal or illegal – they will do it.
And this is one reason why the war on drugs is a dismal failure. We create the supply, AND the demand. Without removal of one of the other, drug addiction will continue to proliferate.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology