Editorial: Pushing pills

Published on December 20, 2016

This fentanyl was seized by the RCMP on Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula.

©TC Media

As fentanyl deaths spike in British Columbia — and as use of the often-fatal drug moves from west to east across the country — it’s tempting to lay blame on drug abusers and wash your hands of the problem. You know, the old “they made their bed, they can lie in it” argument.

But one thing worth keeping in mind is that there’s plenty of blame to go around, and the culprits aren’t always who you think they are.

Fentanyl is only taking up the mantle of the last synthetic opioid to ravage lives and, too often, to kill.

Remember the toll that OxyContin took on the Atlantic provinces several years ago? In Newfoundland and Labrador, the provincial government ordered a review after prescriptions increased by 400 per cent for opioid painkillers. In Nova Scotia, there were 295 deaths connected to prescription drugs like OxyContin between 2007 and 2010.

In all four provinces, opioid addictions and the need for money to buy the drugs is a common thread in court cases involving both violent and non-violent crime.

But while fentanyl deaths now are being connected primarily to illicitly manufactured drugs made with Chinese ingredients, there are plenty of dirty hands.

New research out of West Virginia — tracked down and published by the Charleston Gazette-Mail after years of effort — shows that the problems with the sale and distribution of hydrocodone and OxyContin, and their prescription to patients who shouldn’t have been on opioids at all, was something that drug manufacturers had to have deliberately ignored.

The Gazette-Mail has obtained documents showing that, over a span of just six years leading up to 2012, drug wholesalers sold a whopping 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills in the state. In that period, 1,728 West Virginians died from overdoses of those pills.

How staggering are the numbers?

Well, the town of Kermit, W.Va., has a population of 392 people. The newspaper’s research shows that drug companies operating outside of West Virginia shipped almost 9 million doses of hydrocodone to a single Kermit pharmacy in just two years.

For drug companies, the huge sales meant millions of dollars in profits, and for their executives, huge bonuses.

Drug wholesalers in West Virginia are required by law to report suspicious orders for controlled drugs — but they didn’t report any problems, and it’s easy to understand why. Money.

Right now, deaths in Vancouver from fentanyl are spiking — history suggests that the drugs involved are making their way east, and emergency services are already planning for the impact.

It’s simple enough to merely blame the users.

But there’s always someone — sometimes, a huge, otherwise-legitimate drug company — standing by to profit.

People who are addicted to drugs are paying with their lives. Other, perhaps far more blameworthy, are merely paid.

Who’s standing on the moral high ground again?