American Pain, Jamaican Gain?

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Gleaner column of November 1, 2017

The time has never been better for Jamaica to enter the medical marijuana market with the US reeling from an opioid epidemic in the everlasting hunt for pain relief. Opioids are synthetic derivatives of opium—essentially synthetic heroin. Ganja offers much less risky and more effective pain relief than the dangerous opioid-laced drug OxyContin which has been ruthlessly marketed to Americans since 1995.

The background to this addictive drug is fascinating. An article in the New Yorker titled “Empire of Pain” details the links between the venerable Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, the company that popularized OxyContin in the US. Known for their art patronage in particular, with a wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York bearing their name as well as numerous other major museums, galleries and art enterprises, the Sacklers could give lessons in how to convert filthy lucre to Brahminic prestige and honor using the magic wand of art.

The rise of the family and their rapid consolidation and control of the pain industry is the perfect illustration of predatory capitalism at work.  One of the wealthiest families in the US, with a collective net worth of thirteen billion dollars, the Sacklers are known for their philanthropy. The New Yorker quoted lawyer Joseph Choate’s speech when the Met was founded in 1880, coaxing the rich to support the arts:

“Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets, what glory may yet be yours, if you only listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble.”

Started by three brothers who between them had a talent for medicine, marketing and business the Sackler Firm was founded on the astute promotion and distribution of tranquilizers like Valium. So effective was their advertising campaign that “by 1973, American doctors were writing more than a hundred million tranquillizer prescriptions a year, and countless patients became hooked.” The best selling novel “Valley of the Dolls” chronicled Hollywood’s addiction to such drugs in the 60s.

Arthur Sackler, who ran the advertising company, now started a periodical for doctors called the Medical Tribune that reached 600,000 physicians. Then the brothers bought Purdue, a medicine manufacturing company and they had the perfect setup to get America hooked on their drugs. A subcommittee looking into the pharmaceutical industry in the 60s summed up the situation succinctly:

“The Sackler empire is a completely integrated operation in that it can devise a new drug in its drug development enterprise, have the drug clinically tested and secure favorable reports on the drug from the various hospitals with which they have connections, conceive the advertising approach and prepare the actual advertising copy with which to promote the drug, have the clinical articles as well as advertising copy published in their own medical journals, [and] prepare and plant articles in newspapers and magazines.”

OxyContin is the extended-release version of Oxycodone, an opiate that alters not only the perception of pain but also mood, giving users an artificial ‘high’. It wasn’t long before the drug started to be abused, spawning a secondary industry in OxyContin being used for pleasure rather than pain. “Crushing the pills, then shooting or snorting them up, delivered an immediate, powerful rush, as addictive as any hard street drug,” according to a New York Post article on a chain of clinics set up in Florida called “American Pain” which also acted as a front for dispensing Oxycontin to drug-users under the pretext of medicating them for pain.

American Pain prescribed 20 million pills in two years. Cynthia Cadet, a young doctor attached to the clinic would see 70 patients a day, busily prescribing Oxycodone pills for everyone. Eventually the FBI cracked down on the pain chain but not before 51 patients Cadet had prescribed pills for, died from related causes.

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While the USA reels from opioid addiction many in the health sector are turning to another more benign drug for help: Cannabis or as we know it, Ganja. More and more studies are showing that cannabis can be used instead of opioids to treat pain, and to reduce reliance on opioids.

A study conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan in 2016 highlighted the following in an article published in the Journal of Pain:

— Cannabis use was associated with 64% lower opioid use in patients with chronic pain.

— Cannabis use was associated with better quality of life in patients with chronic pain.

— Cannabis use was associated with fewer medication side effects and medications used.

The jury is no longer out on Ganja’s remarkable healing and pain-relieving properties. It may even be that this was what motivated the legalization of the heavily policed drug in parts of the US in recent years. I’m not sure why the Jamaican government is dragging its feet where capitalizing on this positively virtuous drug, whose name is virtually synonymous with Jamaica is concerned, but I sincerely hope that we don’t miss the boat on this one. America’s pain can surely be converted to Jamaica’s gain but as Usain Bolt knows, the race is to the swift not the tortoise, no matter what the Bible says.

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