The United States, a big country, does things in a big and potent way. Greatness can come from this. Also problems.
Studies conducted in the past few years have shown that dependence on opiate-based drugs can result in just a few days. The nation provides a large sample size from which to evaluate such things.
Who gets the blame for the drug problem, that remains a tricky and litigious matter.
Filings have grown like backyard tomatoes this summer in an Ohio courtroom where about 2,000 lawsuits, mostly by American cities and counties, have converged against the pharmaceutical industry and its role in what has become a prescription painkiller “crisis.”
Plaintiffs in the federal case say drug makers and distributors failed to institute required safeguards to stop suspicious orders of opioids. It stacks up as the biggest civil trial in history.
This fight comes in the aftermath of a rising awareness that opioid use has become a major public health concern, one affecting the economy (losses of $115 billion in 2017, said one study), families (about 48,000 deaths in 2018), border security (fentanyl smuggled into the country) and legislative deliberations (countless bills addressed, and money spent, at the national and state levels).
Even the Census Bureau, a numbers-driven agency if ever one existed, produced an analysis showing that states with high rates for prescribing opioids correlate closely with states with higher rates of grandparents raising grandchildren.
In short, the epidemic becomes a phenomenon both far-reaching and very specific, impacting thousands of anonymous souls and that loved one you know.
A study by The Washington Post has captured this aggregation of heartache with alarming clarity. It includes a database that shows a county-level breakdown of every American pain pill transaction from 2006 to 2012.
That’s 380 million transactions, but the real “yikes!” moments come in considering the local volumes. In that, and in the near-immediate bite of dependency and possible addiction that can come, you recognize how such a calamity can grow.
Missouri, during that time period, got nearly 1.6 billion pills. In the 16 counties of Northwest Missouri, the coverage area of this newspaper, roughly 86.9 million pills came, according to the database.
Of those, Buchanan County received 38.7 million, a population-based total of 62 pills per person, per year. Livingston County, with transactions of about 6.6 million pills, had a per capita amount slightly higher, at 63.
Platte County, with its growing population, got 18.4 million pills in this time frame.
Numbers in the database came from a tracking system of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which The Post and a West Virginia media company had to go to court to obtain.
It speaks volumes that the federal government would so reluctantly turn loose of information that would cast a light on a problem that the federal government now wants to fight. It might more specifically speak to the influence that big pharmaceutical companies have in influencing policy.
That said, the heat has increased on this epidemic, those damaged and those doing the damage. In court and in the court of public opinion, findings continue to gestate.
The painkillers were meant to help humans. And they did. Better living through medicine. In runaway fashion, though, a great harm resulted for many.
The grand scope of this very modern dilemma has a reductionist quality, and people hope the answers arrive before individual hurts arrive for someone they know.