The space out merchants

Onetime Canadian PM Jean Chretien got himself into hot water several years back. Believing himself off-mike at a political dinner, he remarked to the person next to him that what was standard practice in the US Congress would be jailable conduct in most other Western countries. When his remarks were leaked, there was much righteous indignation on the banks of the Potomac, but little attempt to rebut the essence of his message.

Perhaps he was thinking of little gems such as former house speaker John Boehner stalking the Congress with, yes, an actual chequebook, dispensing lobbyist-sourced largesse on the eve of an important vote; or of senators asking their secretaries if visiting constituents had donated to their campaigns. Answer “no”? No meeting with their senator for them …

Two of the most devastating drug plagues of recent years are directly traceable to the Babylonian corruptions of US politics. In the 1960s, the downer marketed in the US as Quaalude and in the UK and Australia as Mandrax (responsible for the deaths of thousands) was subjected to restrictions and ultimately taken off the market in 1984.

Attempts by organised crime to resume illicit production in India and Mexico were successfully stymied by the Drug Enforcement Agency targeting precursors. What was in danger of developing into a major abuse epidemic was stopped in its tracks; the first and so far only victory in the War on Drugs.

With the election of the Reagan Administration and the beginnings of the Ice epidemic, localised among bikers in the Pacific Northwest, the same people who had stopped Quaaludes presented a proposal to the Justice Department to ban production of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Called to a meeting in Washington, they expected discussions to be limited to their departmental superiors. But they found themselves confronted by an army of pharmaceutical lobbyists and Reagan donors. Facing a choice between stemming a manageable threat, and prioritising the profits of a larcenous industry, guess what? Pharmaceutical interests 1, public health interest 0. These drugs have destroyed lives and communities across the US, where they attach themselves to deindustrialisation, poverty and misery, making worse existing social breakdown.

An opiate epidemic, especially the heroin-like product Oxycontin, now overshadows the others. It is expected to claim 64,000 lives in the US this year. There was no demand and little medical use for Oxycontin – except for terminal cancer patients. But after aggressive promotion to the medical profession by Purdue Pharma, the producer of the drug, it was prescribed widely for low-level pain conditions previously managed via other, less powerful, but much less profitable medications.

In the early 1990s, the Purdue patents on milder pain treatments, its main assets, were about to expire. The company set about developing and getting regulatory approval for Oxycontin.

“From 1996 to 2001, American drug giant Purdue held more than 40 national ‘pain management symposia’ at picturesque locations, hosting thousands of American doctors, nurses and pharmacists”, writes Joanna Walters in the Guardian. “Health care professionals had been specially invited, whisked to the conferences to be drilled on promotional material about the firm’s new star drug, Oxycontin, and recruited as advocates, the US government later claimed.”

There was no sound medical reason for developing this product. But there were compelling commercial reasons and the company encountered little resistance from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, being licensed by the US government to market the ultimate capitalist product.

Oxycontin addicted millions and killed cumulatively hundreds of thousands – often, people psychologically predisposed to addiction in areas of economic decline, such as the coalfields of Kentucky and West Virginia and the Midwest rustbelt.

The company was fined $600 million for misconduct; chicken feed set against the company’s $3 billion in annual revenues. So in a country where there are tens of thousands of mostly black prisoners doing long, and sometimes life, sentences for petty weed offences, a capitalist corporation can be licensed by government to kill tens of thousands of people yearly, sacrificed on the altar of profit.

Increasingly, day to day life under decaying capitalism resembles the plot line of the 1953 dystopian science fiction novel The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, in which the US Senate is a Mussolini-style corporate chamber (“the senator for Burpi-Cola” …) and it’s legal to sell morphine-laced cornflakes. I used to think of it as satire; now I realise it was prophecy!

Don’t like it? Don’t like capitalism.