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A class analysis of the U.S. opioid epidemic

Commentary by Nathaniel Wallace |
March 25, 2018
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Jersey City, NJ - The U.S. opioid epidemic is yet another chapter in the shameful history of U.S. public health policy failing working-class Americans. The deadly effects of heroin and opioid addiction have long since plagued America’s resource-deprived urban centers and impoverished rural areas. However, the U.S. opioid epidemic has only recently entered the mainstream national discourse; clearly the result of its deadly effects now ravaging middle-class suburbia and the children of the 1%.

U.S. policy-makers have yet again proven only to be inclined to take action on public health epidemics if and when their deadly effects spill out of low-income urban centers and rural poverty zones into the ‘white picket fence America’ of policymakers beholden to the elite, in order to ‘stay in the game.’

Obstacles to transformational public policy changes

The non-existence of proven to harm reduction strategies - such as clean needle exchanges and free drug counselling and treatment services in the communities populated by those most in need, is a clear example of the criminality of the ruling class and their political puppeteers in Congress. Such callous indifference to human suffering is already an inherent fact of life for the masses under capitalism, but this criminal cruelty rooted in both class and national oppression hardly stops at indifference.

Instead of public health policy designed to lift people up from addiction and at least mitigate the most harmful effects of capitalist economic practices on its victims, the puppets of the 1% in Congress instead continue ever more brazen assaults on the 99%. The American Healthcare Act of 2017 (aka Trumpcare) and the expansion of the devastating ‘War on Drugs,’ both in rhetoric and in practice within Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ Justice Department, signals in no uncertain terms that the U.S. government is resolved to further escalate its assault on the multinational working-class.

War on Drugs: Naked national oppression and class warfare.

Michelle Alexander proves this to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt in her 2010 New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, pointing to the fact “African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.”

Rather than enact policies that combat the economic angst crippling working-class and oppressed peoples, the U.S. is doubling down on austerity and repression in oppressed communities. Therefore, it should be no surprise that substance abuse and addiction rates continue to soar; people are facing a normalization of misery that fuels the desire to escape through substance use and abuse. The U.S. is perpetuating and expanding law enforcement’s most ruthless drug-enforcement practices. These cases are then handed over to district attorneys with a dogmatic religious-like devotion to the gods of mandatory minimum sentences; an indispensable tool in ensuring fully occupied private prisons for indifferent, and outright nefarious investors seeking the most ‘bang for their buck.’ Mandatory minimums bar judges from exercising discretion in sentencing when confronted with the most egregious of injustices.

Former New Jersey governor employs newly-found compassion on his way out the door

Enemy of the working-class, and now former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, served as front man for Reach NJ during his final year in office in 2017 in an attempt to humanize himself prior to re-entering civilian life. Reach NJ is a state-funded public-service announcement campaign that features ads imploring people struggling with addiction to seek help. Christie proclaims in one of these ads that “New Jersey is experiencing an epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse; friends and family are dying from overdoses at a rate twice the national average; that number is rising, and we are working hard to do everything we can to stop this disease.”

On the surface, this appears to be a rare instance of a large state, devastated by the opioid epidemic, actually doing something different. However, the inconvenient truth for Christie and legions of opportunist New Jersey politicians is their long-established record of support for a ‘law enforcement only’ response to not just this crisis, but every aspect of drug policy so long as middle-class hamlets or the gated communities of the 1% are spared the effects.

These policies have created a nightmarish system for working-class people struggling with drug addiction - a system best characterized as a never-ending cycle of deja vu: arrest, incarcerate, profit from incarceration, release and repeat. It would be logical to assume that someone with such a shameful record of wielding repressive state power would not dare claim to be a champion for people battling the complex challenges that come with being an addict. Right? Wrong!

The now former New Jersey governor, despite never providing the needed state funding for comprehensive addiction counselling and treatment services for poor and working-class New Jerseyans, still had the audacity to make this ‘heartfelt’ appeal in one of his many 2017 Reach NJ ads: “If you’re struggling with addiction, supporting someone who is or just don’t know where else to turn, don’t suffer, don’t wait, I want you to know you are not alone; help is within reach.”

Christie’s ploy is hardly an isolated example of a died-in-the-wool enemy of the working class attempting to rebrand themselves for personal gain; it is essential that all reactionary politicians attempting to obscure indefensible records with humanizing propaganda not be let off the hook. Now is the time to fight back against the cynical ploys used by the politicians hand-picked by the 1% to carry out anti-worker class warfare in every city and state across the U.S.

Part II of this series will address the paradoxical complexities of the U.S. opioid epidemic. The nearly simultaneous timing of the influx of deadly fentanyl-laced heroin hitting U.S. streets, with law enforcement’s nationwide crackdown on lucrative ‘pill mills’ will be explored and analyzed in detail.