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Issue #1802      November 8, 2017

Taking Issue – Rob Gowland

Drugs and price gouging

Why do people take “recreational” drugs? Some do it because of peer pressure, but that begs the question: why do their peers do it in the first place? I am no expert, but I suspect it’s because they want more out of life than they are getting in the normal course of events: more buzz, more pleasure, more excitement.

And they certainly don’t get that from their work. Most of them don’t even get a sense of achievement from their work. They are more likely to feel mind-numbing boredom mixed with the realisation that they are being ripped off by the boss, to whom they are merely expendable cogs in a profit-making machine. No wonder they seek escape in a bottle or a powder or a tablet!

The country with the worst drug problem is also the epitome of capitalism, the United States. People there are relentlessly sold an image of what life is supposedly like that is frankly unattainable. It’s an image of comfortable houses, no money worries, no unemployment, rewarding (usually white-collar) work, and of course a complete absence of exploitation.

That unreal image is created and sustained by a corporate mass media that has a vested interest in steering people away from reality. If people were to confront reality too closely they might decide that they needed to do something about it, to change that reality so that it better served working people. And that would never do.

So people are presented with this unreal image of how life supposedly is, and when their life falls short of this phoney ideal they are left disappointed, despondent and distressed. But instead of a better life, they are offered various means of escape, of forgetting their concerns altogether: they can either get drunk or get high.

Getting drunk is almost socially acceptable but it has unacceptable and unpleasant side effects. Getting high is so much cooler. Providing the means for people to escape into oblivion is also big business, an alternative economy that generates huge profits that many “legitimate” businesses are only too happy to take advantage of for funding takeovers or just augmenting their bottom line.

In the USA, the circulation and popularising of powerful, addictive recreational drugs has been undertaken not only by criminal gangs but by sections of the intelligence community who prefer to keep their secretive activities well-hidden from legislators that might wish to “interfere”. Using money from the lucrative (and, of course, hush-hush) drug trade (or the alternative, and equally hush-hush illicit arms sales) allows these agencies to facilitate, for example, the financing of subversive right-wing guerrilla armies in South and Central America free of Congressional “interference”.

In the 1960s, marihuana was very popular, thanks in part to widespread disgust among young intellectuals with the culture and philosophy of American capitalism as it fought yet another war against “Godless communism” and in part to the belief that it was harmless. It was not long, however, before people moved on to much harder drugs in search of that elusive “buzz” and heroin became a popular choice for many (cocaine was too expensive for most people). A severe risk for heroin users, however, was choking to death on their own vomit.

Today in the US, and other developed Western countries such as Australia, people still routinely seek to escape from reality. Now the popular recreational drug regimen is use of opioids. These are available on prescription but are nevertheless addictive. In fact, opioid addiction in the US today is a huge problem, that nevertheless makes pots of money for those providing the substance. An even more severe problem than addiction is deaths from overdosing on opioids.

American health writer and doctor, Amy Faith Ho, notes in on-line journal Truthout that: “More than 64,000 Americans will die overdose deaths this year.” That’s an incredible figure by any stretch of the imagination.

She continues: “Tighter regulations on prescription narcotics may just be shifting those with opioid addictions back to heroin cartels. During his last term, President Obama signed a bill funding $181 million into programs combating opioid addiction, including programs that increased access to naloxone, the antidote for opioid overdoses. ... At the same time, synthetic opioids like carfentanil are proving highly resistant to common doses of naloxone, sometimes requiring 10 or more doses of naloxone to reverse an overdose.”

More than 40 states in the US have made naloxone available without a prescription for the express purpose of enabling family members to revive their loved ones in case of overdose. But we’re talking about the USA, where questions of public health are merely additional opportunities for profit-making.

Doctor Ho observes: “Naloxone has been on the market since 1971 and became generic in 1985. The drug itself is cheap, with the current wholesale price cited as $0.33 for a 2 ml vial or $11.70 for 10 2 ml vials by the International Medical Product Guide. Comparatively, in the US, a simple vial of naloxone is 40 times that price.” Anything, in fact, from $14.25/ml to $23.72/ml! Such outrageous price-gouging is standard capitalist practice – “charging what the market will bear” – but in the US it is costing lives.

In fact it is forcing cash-strapped city administrations to put their budgets ahead of saving lives. As Dr Ho notes, “Citing cost concerns, communities have begun to propose ‘one and done’ or ‘three strikes’ rules where people are limited on the number of overdose responses they get from city ambulance services – so the next time they call, the city will just let them die. Middletown, Ohio, was one of those cities – a town that is on track to spend over $2 million this year responding to opioid addiction problems.”

But if naloxone is outrageously overpriced, so are the means of delivering it to sufferers: The naloxone nasal spray by Adapt Pharma, “a simple plastic nasal sprayer that could be manufactured for pennies” (as Dr Ho notes), costs $110 while the naloxone auto-injector by Kaleo Pharma costs a mind-boggling $4,500. No wonder big pharmaceutical companies are viewed with such suspicion in “the land of the free”!

The American people have been subjected to a propaganda blitz in favour of “private enterprise” for so long they have difficulty even grasping the concept of public enterprises. The only alternative to having things run for private profit that they can usually envisage is to have them run by a “philanthropic foundation” (that’s American for “charity”, usually funded by the excess profits of some heavyweight capitalist who is big-noting himself by giving away what he should be giving back).

However, common sense combined with the lessons learned every day by trying to cope with the iniquities and injustices inherent in capitalism are forcing Americans to reassess their faith in “private enterprise” and the supposed benefits of relying on “market forces”.

As Dr Ho puts it: “Pharmaceutical price gouging has created a situation where access to life-saving medicines is limited by profit margins. ... The message is clear: If you can’t afford $4,500 for a dose of medicine, you don’t get to live.” That choice is too stark for many Americans to cop. They are desperately looking for alternatives, including the previously much despised Socialism, which Bernie Sanders found to have tremendous traction with young people in particular.

Dr Ho has issued a call for an urgent alternative to the private enterprise pharmaceutical regime. “Naloxone is a life-saving drug, one that serves the public in an increasingly important way as we continue to search for other ways to limit the devastation caused by the ongoing opioid crisis. With such public impact, it is time to stop relying on ‘pharma bros’ and start creating and incentivising non-profit or government and academic-sponsored institutions for an alternative. Store shelves need to be flooded with easy-to-use naloxone devices that are sold for what they cost to make and distribute. Only then will the supply of this life-saving generic drug begin to meet the tragic demand for it.”

Dr Ho looks to “non-profit or government and academic-sponsored institutions for an alternative.” That’s an alternative to the private profit system, of course. Trying to cope with any health crisis under capitalism is fraught with difficulties as people’s needs conflict with business people’s greed.

As one example, Harm Reduction Therapeutics is a “non-profit pharmaceutical company that is working to maximise naloxone’s over-the-counter availability while minimising the price and financial burdens to consumers, first responders, and state and local governments. Co-founder and CEO Michael Hufford noted that ‘philanthropic foundations backing this new non-profit pharmaceutical model will help with an urgently needed response to the opioid crisis, while realising a tremendous return on their investment, measured not in dollars, but in lives saved’.”

Unfortunately, for most Americans, capitalism determines how their public health services are delivered, that is, their delivery depends not on people’s needs or on lives saved but on whether it can turn a profit. More and more Americans are recognising, as Bernie Sanders has done, that that is simply not good enough.

Next article – The recolonisation of Africa

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