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The Opioid Epidemic in America – Killing One Million Workers

In the 21st century, a similar process of deterioration has been occurring internally in the United States. The ‘prescription opioid epidemic’ is ravaging American families, neighborhoods, communities, cities and states – shredding the entire fabric of US society, especially in rural, mining and former manufacturing ‘rust belt’ regions. Hundreds of thousands of mostly working class victims have died and millions of addicts, unable to resist the destruction of their futures, have replaced a once powerful labor force.

Official government studies estimate almost 700,000 deaths since 1999, based on the scattered and incomplete coroner reports and death certificates that characterize the state of vital statistics in the US. There is no uniformity in data collection and no interest in developing a uniform national system on which to formulate social policies. Most likely additional hundreds of thousands of drug deaths have gone un-recorded or attributed to ‘pre-existing’ medical conditions, suicides and accidents – despite clear evidence of over-prescription of narcotics and sedatives in the victims.

The US opioid epidemic accounts in large part for the ‘declining numbers of workforce participants among prime age workers’ according to Senate testimony by Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen, an Obama appointee. An estimated 15% of US construction workers suffer from substance abuse. The escalating costs of ‘Suboxone’ and other forms of narcotic addiction treatment threaten to bankrupt the health plans of several building unions. Shortages of qualified American skilled building trade workers further allow employers to push for more immigrant labor to fill the gap.

For over 2 decades the escalating numbers of opioid overdose deaths were ignored by both political parties, as well as by writers and academics of the left and right. Doctors and hospital administrators were either actively complicit or in denial. But more important the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) continued to approve manufacture, marketing and prescribing of highly addictive narcotics and sedatives to tens of millions of American patients earning the pharmaceutical industry scores of billions in profits despite the devastation. Between 1999-2014 pharmaceutical manufacturers were earning $10 billion dollars each year in profits from the sale and distribution of opiates.

In the following section, we will discuss the larger picture, including the powerful socio-economic and political forces that have profited from the addiction and killing of millions of Americans – past and present. This deliberate policy, with strong neo-Malthusian overtones, has decimated a sector of the US working class, rendered ‘surplus’ or redundant by political-economic decisions of the American ruling elite. In its wake, the prescription addiction crisis has turned large swathes of the former manufacturing and mining sectors of the US into what the current President Donald Trump would characterize as domestic ‘shitholes’ and populated by what his rival, Hillary Clinton, callously derided as ‘deplorables’. In terms of rapid loss of life and social stability, this population devastation mirrors the patterns seen in countries subjected to US/EU neo-liberal economic dictates or to US/EU imperial invasions.


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