drug dealers behind the veil of a doctor’s lab coat, a medical degree and
prescription pad are every bit as bad as a drug dealer or heroin trafficker
from Detroit or elsewhere.” U.S.
Attorney Michael Stuart
This quote is from an article published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. On Tuesday, February 20th, a 69-count indictment against 12 doctors was unsealed in a Beckley U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. When I finished reading the article I jotted down some questions about the Opioid epidemic I felt needed to be addressed: If wholesalers are shipping excessive amounts of drugs into rural areas shouldn’t there have been sales reps mentioned in the indictments? The wholesalers weren't shipping the drugs on a whim, so who else, besides the doctors and sales reps, should be investigated?
The indictments we know about were part of a four-year investigation. There is a chance more shoes could drop, but this is a much needed first step towards punishing someone other than the victims of the medical and pharmaceutical malfeasance that has ravaged these communities. Charging doctors is a great start, but the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and distribute these drugs should be seen as equal participants or co-conspirators in this crisis. If law enforcement doesn't get serious about locking up executives and sales reps the citizens of Appalachia will continue dying from the drugs that are flooding their communities.
Local law enforcement agencies haven’t been able to deal with this problem. They arrest users on possession charges. Every once in a while, a street level dealer is busted, but nothing they have done has slowed down the flow of opiate based drugs. In many areas, Opioids are easier to get than Marijuana. Tuesday’s indictments were the first major action taken against the white-collar criminals profiting from this misery.
This is eerily similar to what happened during the Vietnam War. U.S. soldiers were the victims of a nefarious get rich quick scheme. They were isolated, depressed, and drowning in a pool of readily available heroin. How did heroin from Central America, South America, and the middle east find its way into a war zone? Answer: the CIA partnered with warlords, drug growers and manufacturers. (For those interested, research the Golden Triangle and Air America.)
Rural America, like Vietnam, is a drug dealer's heaven: highly stressed people with incomes plus depressed people with no regards for the future equals a great drug market. In 2016, an investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail found that drug wholesalers shipped over 780 million doses of Hydrocodone and Oxycodone to West Virginia. This fact sits at the root of this problem.
Now that the doctors have been put on notice, I’m eager to see how far up the corporate ladder these investigations will go. I can’t believe in this version of the war on drugs until I see raids on corporate offices, pharmacies, and country clubs. When executives are frog marched off golf courses and out of board rooms I'll know America is taking this seriously. Until then, I’ll watch what passes for justice.