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The opioid crisis: profits, lawsuits, and pharmaceutical influence


The absolute belief in a vast conspiracy is often associated with an unbalanced mind. People suffering from some forms of mental illness are prone to these beliefs, seeing the invisible hand of the CIA behind the music choices on their radio stations. But that’s not always the case. Dr. Andrew Wakefield was born in 1956 and completed his medical degree in 1981, becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1985. From 1986 to 1989, he studied tissue rejection at the University of Toronto, and by 1993 he was working back in the U.K. at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

It was then and there that he published reports first claiming that the measles virus was associated with Crohn’s disease, and then two years later, publishing a paper in The Lancet that claimed there was a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and that disease. Researchers later questioned these associations and found that the claims could not be supported by the evidence, but this didn’t slow him down. By 1996, Dr. Wakefield was researching a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.

In 1998 Dr. Wakefield was the lead author of a study involving twelve children that was also published in the Lancet, positing the existence of a new medical condition called autistic enterocolitis and claiming a link between the MMR vaccine, colitis, and autism, reporting that the behavioral abnormalities started within two weeks of vaccination in eight of the twelve children. Rather than wait for peer review, he gave a press conference that generated massive public interest, and the sensationalized news broadcasts terrified many parents into refusing to vaccinate their children. Dr. Wakefield was fine with this, saying that it was a “moral issue” for him to speak out.

Japan took it so seriously that they individualized each vaccine and administered them separately. Generating an excellent dataset that disproved the association. There appears to be no recognized statistically significant link between the MMR vaccine and autism. But how could the good doctor have been so wrong? A reporter for the Sunday Times found the first clue. Reporter Brian Deer reported that some of the twelve children in the study published in the Lancet had been recruited by an attorney who was preparing a lawsuit against manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. Dr. Wakefield’s publicized claims could sway potential jurors. But the conspiracy didn’t end there.

It turned out that Dr. Wakefield had applied for a patent on his own vaccine. Keeping the British spelling, the patent application stated that, “The present invention relates to a new vaccine/immunisation for the prevention and/or prophylaxis against measles virus infection and to a pharmaceutical or therapeutic composition for the treatment of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease); particularly Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and regressive behavioural disease (RBD).” And went further to say, “It has now also been shown that use of the MMR vaccine (which is taken to include live attenuated measles vaccine virus, measles virus, mumps vaccine virus and rubella vaccine virus, and wild strains of the aforementioned viruses) results in ileal lymphoid nodular hyperplasia, chronic colitis and pervasive developmental disorder including autism (RBD), in some infants.”

So, we have law firms profiting from lawsuits, a long-recognized and reasonably safe medical therapy demonized, and a physician leading the charge while trying to personally profit from the panic. And that brings us to a parallel scam. In the 1990s, it was recognized that pain was being inadequately treated in the U.S., and steps were taken to make it easier to treat pain. State laws were passed to protect doctors who treated pain from overzealous prosecutors who might want to blame every death on these medications. These laws were necessary as it is extremely easy to confuse a medically naïve jury into convicting a doctor, especially if the prosecutor accuses the doctor of being greedy and uncaring. For a while, doctors treating pain were left alone.

Then came a paradigm shift. After decades of failure, attorneys had finally won against the tobacco industry, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars into the participating state’s coffers. These funds offset tax cuts that had become politically popular, and politicians started looking for the next target. They needed a cash-rich industry with massive profits that wouldn’t look good in court. In stepped the Sackler family and Perdue Pharma. The next factor to align was an epidemic of overdose. This epidemic was caused, in fact, by fentanyl smuggled across the American border at checkpoints, which the federal government had failed miserably at stopping, but the federal government wasn’t keen to focus on this failure. They would be happy if a different narrative could be written.

This new narrative encompassed calling every fentanyl-related death a “prescription-related death” in the federal databases. These are used by the states and they quickly recognized a new target. Pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution companies were targeted for civil lawsuits. At first, these failed. In fact, in some of the trials, the court specifically recognized that the opiate crisis was NOT being caused by prescription medications. Law firms invest millions in publicizing the narrative to win civil suits. The media began to demonize an entire class of medication that had been used safely for over a century. needed to demonize opiates and the doctors who prescribed them. Then, the attorneys could sue the companies that made them, claiming that they were intentionally negligent, shipping “too much” medication to areas of the country where drug use was high. Law firms started investing in research that backed their point of view. Insurance companies joined forces with the Department of Justice and started targeting doctors they didn’t like. Doctors who ordered lots of labs and braces, for instance.

Finally, creating an AI that would sift through millions of previously private patient and pharmacy records to create “target lists” of tens of thousands of patients and hundreds of doctors, eventually marking every doctor in pain management as criminal. Blaming the opioid crisis on physicians overprescribing opiate medications turned out to be very easy. Reporters love to sensationalize a fallen physician and gleefully continue to report “millions of morphine dose equivalents” as millions of opiate doses.

This tainting of potential jury pools, assisted by outrageous exaggerations masquerading as cinema like Painkillers, paid off, giving both the DEA and the states a target-rich environment. “Experts” are paid to convince juries that using opiates at all is somehow nefarious. Insisting that a “good doctor” would “power taper” or not prescribe them at all. Dr. Terry King is one of those experts. He tried to patent a diversion and addiction-detecting algorithm so he could license it to the DEA and personally profit, just like Wakefield, from his fraudulent claims.

Suddenly, lawsuits started going in favor of the states, and so far, $54 billion dollars have been taken from pharmaceutical and pharmacy companies. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying these companies were not greedy and uncaring. I’m saying they all are. Do you think the companies that keep tweaking insulin production, charging hundreds or thousands of dollars per month for a medication that its physician developer released free to the world out of moral principle, are any different?

But what started off as a way to soak the billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry and dictate the practice of medicine in America started having unintended consequences. As doctors saw their colleagues hauled off for daring to treat pain and addiction, thousands of them retired or quit treating those conditions at all. Every doctor shut down or driven out of medicine leaves over a thousand patients scrambling for help, often traveling hundreds of miles to find treatment. The new doctor has now opened himself up to targeting and prosecution as “patients drove a long way to see them” has been used in hundreds of indictments against physicians as evidence of criminal conduct.

Now we have the fallout of these policies. Desperate pain patients try to get their medications on the black market and find instead fake pills that look identical to what they had been on. The overdose rate skyrockets as these patients die, and the DEA uses these statistics to get more support for its war on pain doctors. The states get billions of dollars from the pharma conglomerates, and the prisons stay full. Everyone gets what they want, except, of course, the patients suffering from severe chronic pain and the physicians sitting today in dark cells for the crime of trying to help.

But not one member of the Sackler family sits behind bars. In fact, they are happily spending their billions. Other pharmaceutical companies have, like the victims of Stalin yelling “Long Live Stalin” as they were led away, started demonizing the very opiate medications they were making a few years before. Although it didn’t turn out well for the aforementioned communists, this change in attitude has proven very lucrative for the drug companies. Opiates are cheap. The new “better” treatments for pain are horribly expensive. Hydrocone costs a few dollars per prescription, $40 per 120 pills on GoodRx. While Hysingla, the long-acting and “abuse-deterrent” form costs about $750 for 60 pills. Despite studies showing no substantial benefit to using the more expensive one, as no one was snorting hydrocodone anyway, you can now be deemed criminal by not using it. If the local U.S. Attorney or DEA agent doesn’t understand why.

And that brings us to addiction treatment. The same companies that rewarded government regulators for looking the other way are now making huge profits on substance abuse treatments, while doctors actually treating addiction, like Dr. Meredith Norris, are locked away when any patient has a bad outcome or just because the DEA thinks they are prescribing “too much” medication. All the big players are making out like bandits, literally, while the American people continue to suffer and die.

L. Joseph Parker is a distinguished professional with a diverse and accomplished career spanning the fields of science, military service, and medical practice. He currently serves as the chief science officer and operations officer, Advanced Research Concepts LLC, a pioneering company dedicated to propelling humanity into the realms of space exploration. At Advanced Research Concepts LLC, Dr. Parker leads a team of experts committed to developing innovative solutions for the complex challenges of space travel, including space transportation, energy storage, radiation shielding, artificial gravity, and space-related medical issues. 

He can be reached on LinkedIn and YouTube.






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