Johnson and Johnson Forced to Fuel the Opioid Epidemic?

Ryan Lau | @RyanLau71R

On Monday, Oklahoma state prosecutors won a case against pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson; claiming the corporation pushed doctors to prescribe opioids and thus furthered the opioid epidemic, the prosecutors convinced a state judge to rule in their favor. As a result, Johnson and Johnson will have to pay over $574 million for their damages. But there’s a major issue with this verdict: the state of Oklahoma has some of the strictest drug laws in the country. Their part in the drug war has caused immeasurable suffering to countless people.

As a result, the resolution to the case boils down to this. Johnson and Johnson ruined people’s lives and furthered the opioid epidemic, so they have to pay money to the government. Then, that government will use a part of their budget to enforce drug laws, ruin people’s lives and, you guessed it, further the opioid epidemic. Make sense yet? With this ruling, the state of Oklahoma has formally declared that they and only they are allowed to ruin lives and further the opioid epidemic. Remember: tyranny hates competition.

Johnson and Johnson Isn’t Off the Hook

In no way did the pharmaceutical company take a moral stance over the past couple of decades. It’s pretty clear that they, like many other major pharmaceutical companies, downplayed the negative effects of opioids. After misinforming experts and masses alike, they pushed doctors to prescribe opioids to the public. This indirectly caused many to get hooked on the drugs and go back, looking for more. As we know now, though, the opioids were highly addictive and caused a great deal of harm to Americans nationwide.

Yes, people assume the responsibility for any drug that they choose to put into their bodies. But that doesn’t make it any less irresponsible for the company to do something they knew had more risks than they admitted. They aren’t alone in their role. Looking back, doctors could have done more research before prescribing opioids. Likewise, the patients could have looked into solutions with more proven long-term research. Obviously, though, we can’t look back and fix problems of the past with knowledge gained since.

Equally clearly, Johnson and Johnson made a lot of lives a lot worse. Though they shouldn’t be forced to pay the government for it, they were in the wrong. They weren’t alone, though. The opioid epidemic is largely the fault of governments and Oklahoma’s has been just about the worst.

Oklahoma’s Drug War

It’s no secret that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In fact, we house nearly a fourth of the world’s prisoners despite having less than 5% of the world’s population. What’s lesser-known, though, is that Oklahoma has a higher rate than any other state. They’re home to 1,079 prisoners for every 100,000 people, a rate nearly double that of Russia and ten times higher than China’s. With a population just under 4 million, this means that over 42,000 Oklahomans are in prison or jail: more than 1% of the total population. And these figures are only increasing, as the below graph indicates.

oklahoma incarceration rate drug war
Oklahoma incarceration rates, 1978-2015

A disturbing number of these imprisonments relate to drug charges; the ACLU’s Blueprint for Smart Justice states that 32% of all Oklahomans in prison are there due to either drug possession or drug distribution. Clearly, the state of Oklahoma has aggressively enforced the drug war. But has this worsened the opioid crisis?

Furthering the Opioid Epidemic

Clearly, this is true; both the ACLU and Drug Policy Alliance agree. Banning drugs has made them less safe; when sellers have to operate in secrecy, they aren’t as accountable to their consumers because information on them is less accessible. Why is it that fentanyl is so prevalent in heroin and other illegal drugs today? At least in part, it’s because the dealers that aren’t giving out fentanyl can’t as easily gain a reputation as offering a safer product. You can’t look up a reliable dope dealer on Yelp (with the possible exception of Johnson and Johnson). As a consequence, every purchase is a shot in the dark and people are dying over it.

Surely, decriminalization of all drugs helps those suffering from addictions, legal or not, get the help that they need. It also reduces the stigma around drug use while prioritizing drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. The state of Oklahoma disagrees, implementing strict three-strike laws and other harsh policies that lead to many life sentences for those suffering from addictions.

Addicts: Worse than Johnson and Johnson?

If Oklahoma really cared about victims of the opioid epidemic, their first step would be to end the drug war. But in the nearly 50 years since Nixon declared drugs public enemy number one, the state hasn’t even legalized weed. Possession for the first offense is a misdemeanor, but it becomes a felony for each additional offense.

Offenses that deal with harder drugs, naturally, are felonies. This raises the question: does Oklahoma really care about victims of the opioid epidemic, or do they only care about victims who got their drugs legally? As the state sucks in money from Johnson and Johnson and turns around to lock up thousands for using similar drugs, the answer is clear. The state of Oklahoma has ruled that a desperate addict deserves less sympathy and more punishment than the company that put so many in that addict’s shoes.


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