Editorial: Dollars and sense in drug policies

The Island Now

Nassau County recently approved settlements totaling more than $26 million with pharmacy chains CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens and Walmart and drug manufacturing giant Johnson & Johnson for their role in the ongoing opioid epidemic.

This followed a $4.5 billion national settlement with the Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, that will shut down the company and end the family’s ability to manufacture opioids ever again. The agreement is expected to provide New York State with at least $200 million.

And on Tuesday, the county’s total take grew to up to $115 million as Nassau, Suffolk County and New York state came to terms with drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

The companies were being sued in federal court in Central Islip led by state Attorney General Letitia James seeking to hold manufacturers, distributors and chain pharmacies accountable for the plague.

Nassau, Suffolk and the state are still in court with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Allergan PLC, Endo International, and Anda Pharmaceutical Products.

James and the two counties claim that the drug manufacturers misled the public by initially denying that the drugs were highly addictive and aggressively marketed them, ignoring warnings of abuse in pursuit of profits.

The opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc on countless communities across New York state and the rest of the nation, leaving millions still addicted to dangerous and deadly opioids,” James said following the settlement with the four pharmacy chains and Johnson & Johnson. “While no amount of money will ever compensate for the thousands who lost their lives or became addicted to opioids across our state or provide solace to the countless families torn apart by this crisis, these funds will be used to prevent any future devastation.”

Countywide non-fatal opioid-related overdoses dropped 21 percent from 2017’s levels to 217 cases in 2019, while fatal overdoses fell 15 percent to 44.

But fatal drug overdoses jumped 34 percent in Nassau in 2020, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 287 fatal drug overdoses in the county last year, with 60 suspected overdose deaths that have not yet been confirmed by the medical examiner’s office.

James, Nassau and Suffolk counties and attorney generals across the country deserve much credit for bringing companies that destroyed lives in the pursuit of profits to account and provide much-needed funding to combat this crisis and aid its victims.

Missing from all the litigation is any talk about “junkies,” “the pusher man” or “drug kingpins” as was common in the 1990s.

Nor are we hearing any discussion of long jail sentences for those responsible for the 93,000 overdose deaths nationally in 2020. Or for that matter the people using and possessing the opioids.

In fact, the current drug kingpins are facing no jail time and the billions in fines agreed to by people like the Sackler family still leaves them with billions in their bank accounts and stock portfolios.

What’s the difference?

The most obvious one is that both users, distributors and manufacturers are predominantly white and live in rural and suburban areas. While those in the 1990s were predominantly Black and brown and living in inner cities suffering from high crime rates.

And in the case of distributors and manufacturers, they wear suits and work for large corporations.

This is not to say that we do not welcome eliminating the use of words like “junkie” to describe people using drugs.

Even as users have moved from painkillers to heroin and then fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid.

The emphasis for users now – as it should have always been – is treating people suffering from a disease: addiction. Not as criminals locked up for long prison terms.

This evolution of how drug users are treated makes a good case for that new bogeyman of the right – critical race theory, a study of how American racism has shaped public policy and the law.

Republican politicians have now twisted the term to justify efforts to avoid teaching the role of racism in U.S. history that accompanies the noble ideals that our flawed founders set forth.

But it is hard to argue against the presence of racism in our drug laws.

For instance, it wasn’t until 2010 that Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.

Under the old law, the distribution of 5 grams of crack carried a minimum 5-year prison sentence – the same as the distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Guess who were the predominant users and distributors of crack cocaine and powder cocaine?

A similar disparity can be seen in the use and distribution of marijuana where Blacks have been 10 times more likely to be prosecuted for possession than whites.

Despite many states, including New York, moving to legalize marijuana, there are an estimated 40,000 Americans incarcerated for marijuana offenses. And millions more carry criminal convictions that prevent them from getting jobs.

While marijuana may have both short- and long-term adverse side effects, there is limited research as to whether using it can cause death.

Compared to other drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is far safer. Excessive alcohol use was responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States in 2020, according to the CDC. In 2020, the total number of deaths attributed to marijuana overdoes was zero.

It also turns out that heroin and fentanyl have replaced prescription pills containing opioids as the main causes of drug deaths. In other words, prescription drugs with opioids have been the gateway drugs to heroin and fentanyl. Not marijuana, as is often claimed.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has injected some sanity into the discussion by proposing legislation to legalized marijuana at the federal level, remove it from the Controlled Substances Act and expunge federal records of nonviolent cannabis offenders.

But the relatively low threat posed by marijuana has not stopped Nassau County towns and villages from voting against even medical marijuana dispensaries from being located in retail locations.

The same towns and villages are now opposing the sale – and foregoing the tax revenues it produces – of recreational marijuana after it was legalized by the state.

But they have no problem with pharmacies that have admitted their roles in the wrongful distribution of opioid products. In stores that also sell deodorants, chocolate and school notebooks. Or liquor stores and restaurants that sell alcohol, a product the CDC says is responsible for 261 deaths a day.

We are by no means calling for curtailing pharmacies or the use of alcohol in retail stores and restaurants.

The so-called War on Drugs during the past 50 years, like Prohibition in the 1920s, has been a failure that too often penalized people of color. So we don’t need a replay of those misguided policies now.

What we do need is common sense in treating marijuana no more harshly than alcohol or cigarettes and treatment for those who abuse drugs of any kind.

And jail sentences for the pushers in suits who sell dangerous drugs unnecessarily in pursuit of profits.




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