When we talk about drug abuse in America, our leaders use the language not just of war but of invasion. It is true, of course, that many illegal drugs are produced in other countries and imported into the United States. But our tendency to focus, relentlessly, on the supply side of the drug problem obscures the more intractable problem of the demand side—and of our complicity, as voracious consumers. “An astonishing ninety per cent of the heroin in America comes from south of the border,” President Trump said on Thursday, in his remarks on the opioid epidemic. And this is true. But, in focussing on this particular statistic, and promising that “building a wall” along the Mexican border “will greatly help this problem,” President Trump indulged the old nativist myth of drug prohibition.
This week, in the magazine, I wrote a piece about the origins of the current epidemic—a story that unfolded not in Mexico but in Stamford, Connecticut, where Purdue Pharma, a privately held company that is owned by the Sackler family, developed a powerful opioid painkiller, OxyContin, and set out to persuade the American medical establishment that it was not addictive. As my piece relates, Purdue succeeded beyond its wildest imaginings. OxyContin became a blockbuster drug, generating billions of dollars for the Sacklers. Meanwhile, a generation of Americans grew addicted to opioid painkillers. Four out of five people who try heroin today first abused prescription painkillers. In light of such a statistic, it would be folly to focus on Mexico and not look very hard at the F.D.A.-approved drug pushers closer to home.
Trump may not be particularly focussed on pharmaceutical companies, but there are promising signs that others are. On Thursday morning, federal agents arrested the founder of Insys, a drug company that produces a powerful opioid, and charged him with racketeering and fraud. And on Wednesday it was revealed that federal prosecutors in Connecticut have opened a new criminal investigation of Purdue Pharma—focussed on the marketing of OxyContin.