Opioid Manufacturers Targeted by Lawsuits as Drug Epidemic Continues

Photo: Johnson & Johnson has been subject to a number of lawsuits from hospitals and state governments for their role in the opioid epidemic

By Dmitri Sans

This week, a group of 29 Texas hospitals led by Dallas-based Parkland Health & Hospital System filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, and other manufacturers of opioids, a class of hard drugs to which millions in the US have become addicted. The filing converges with a barrage of recent lawsuits against these suppliers for their role in the opioid epidemic.

The Texas case in part rests on evidence that these hospitals have witnessed double the amount of emergency room visits for opioid-related reasons in the past decade, as well as a 64% increase in opioid-related hospitalizations. These trends are part of a national crisis, where studies estimate that over 130 people die every day because of opioid-related causes. The number of overdose deaths in the US has risen consistently from the 1990s up until last year, and new combinations of hard drugs will likely lead to further increase.

On August 26, Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest biotech company which sells opioid ingredients and manufactures its own drugs, was ordered by an Oklahoma court to pay the state $572 million for downplaying the dangers of opioid use. The total is a small fraction of the $17 billion demanded by state prosecutors.

Brad Beckworth, lead attorney for the state of Oklahoma in the Johnson & Johnson case

Following that settlement, the owners of Purdue Pharma proposed a $10-12 billion deal to resolve hundreds of pending lawsuits from across the country. The company was previously subjected to $34.5 million in fines in 2007 for mislabeling its drug Oxycontin, and paid another $270 million earlier this year to the state of Oklahoma in part for its aggressive opioid marketing campaign.

To view the outcome of these lawsuits as victories in the fight against the opioid epidemic would be to mistake the state as something other than an instrument of class rule. These cases set a precedent only in that the targets are legally operating largescale manufacturers and suppliers, otherwise it is no different than the state’s decades-long “War on Drugs” policy, which prioritizes supply reduction through law enforcement.

To the bourgeois state, reducing the supply of hard drugs serves as a pretext for terrorizing proletarian communities and the poor, especially those of the oppressed nations, through mass surveillance, militarized policing, and drug raids. This is not limited to the traditional “street” drugs like heroin and cocaine, but also includes the new wave of prescription opioids and benzodiazepines that have become increasingly popular over the past decade.

The judge in the Oklahoma case ruled that the settlement paid by Johnson & Johnson would go mostly towards drug treatment to reduce demand, but drug war budgets have consistently devoted more funds to supply reduction. The more additional money the state has for treatment, the more it has leftover to invest in its terror campaign against the masses.

The state prosecutors made their original ask of $17 billion based on a 30-year plan, which would include inpatient and outpatient services as well as residential care for addicts in the state. The judge did not grant the full award because “the state did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary, beyond year one, to abate the opioid crisis.”

This skepticism is likely based in part on the low success rates of drug rehabilitation. Even for the wealthy, who have excess money to spend on the extremely expensive for-profit recovery options, one of the greatest challenges in getting clean is that those in recovery must eventually return to the same society that triggers substance abuse and addiction after they are discharged. For the working class and poor, there are virtually no options to aid in recovery.

No amount of money can patch up the pitfalls that encircle those addicted to drugs in a society that generates those very pitfalls. When combating substance abuse, more than the psychological and medical aspects of the problem must be targeted.

The spread of drug epidemics in history parallels the rise of imperialism, beginning with colonial ventures like the British opium trade in China. It was here that drugs were first used as a form of chemical warfare against an oppressed nation, driven by profit margins and imperialist scheming. The epidemics since then, including morphine, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl, can all be tied to the miserable social conditions fostered by imperialism.

The undeniable conclusion then must be that to fight against substance abuse is to fight against imperialism. In the hands of the bourgeoisie, the state’s imperative to repress the lower classes will always outweigh its investment in drug treatment. The recent lawsuits were not the result of compassion but of the state’s morbid necessity to curb the rising government medical expenditure related to opioids.

Hard drugs like opioids affect more than the users. Their families, communities, nations, and class share the burden. Revolutionary recovery programs therefore must not be limited to healing the individual but must strive to raise the class consciousness of the collective. Revolutionary work against drugs must also go on the offensive against the class enemies who push drugs on the people as well as the imperialist state that uses drugs as a pretext to terrorize the masses.