The scale of the opioid crisis is difficult to describe. Hundreds of thousands have died of overdose and other complications; untold numbers have had their lives destroyed. Yet corporate America has moved on to promoting widespread use of another serious drug, marijuana, having apparently learned nothing from the opioid crisis.
Unlike COVID, which mostly targets the old and infirm, OxyContin and street alternatives for addicts such as fentanyl and heroin have killed the young and the old, the sick and the healthy alike, including my paternal grandmother.
The “American carnage” of opioids was preventable. If everyone from chemists and executives in Big Pharma to federal regulators and law enforcement had followed the obvious warning signs, much of the chaos could have been forestalled. But OxyContin made staggering sums of money for Purdue Pharma, and as far back as 2007, the company was paying out hundreds of millions in slap-on-the-wrist fines to retain its merchant-of-death license. Even the recent $12 billion settlement paid out by the company is a drop in the bucket.
In light of this, you would think someone in charge might question what we are being told about the safety of so-called recreational cannabis, which is legal in 18 states and Washington, DC, despite remaining a Schedule I federal controlled substance. After all, just over the border in Canada, the legal dope business is being pioneered by one John H. Stewart, who wants to sell it in pill form.
Stewart was previously the CEO of Purdue. After accumulating a vast fortune peddling painkillers his company pretended were safe, he is now telling us highly potent legal dope is not only safe, but might even eliminate the need for — you guessed it — painkillers like OxyContin.
Make no mistake: The days of apartment-complex pot dealers with Hawaiian shirts and exotic fish are long gone. Cannabis is now a $61 billion industry. Stewart and other investors are making money hand over fist. In my state of Michigan, highway billboards are littered with billboards for cannabis dispensaries that remained open even as churches were shuttered across the country last year.
How did this happen? As Kevin A. Sabet, who worked on anti-drug policy for three consecutive administrations, Republican and Democratic, has shown, it happened because the pro-weed lobby has borrowed from the playbook of its predecessors.
Politicians faced with a difficult question shrug; law enforcement finds itself dealing with other priorities; spurious industry-funded studies are promoted — and a media consensus is formed.
It should come as no surprise that “Smoke Screen,” Sabet’s memoir of a career fighting against cannabis legalization published this year, received almost no media attention.
While politicians and industry hacks pretend that the safety of cannabis is a settled matter of fact, the science suggests the opposite is the case. The connection between marijuana and psychosis, for example, is about as well-attested as it is possible for any such relationship to be. Virtually every US perpetrator of a mass shooting has been a habitual pot user.
How do lawmakers justify this to themselves? The same way they always do. First, they reason, it is popular with young people. Besides, like legalized gambling (which also immiserates the poor and the vulnerable), it brings in billions of dollars in much-needed revenue.
For liberals, the game was over long ago. Meanwhile, on the right, the libertarian attitude that people can do anything they want as long as they don’t harm others has taken hold. But this is preposterous. We are not atomic units. We are all members of families, and we all live in the same society. Destroying your mind with drugs isn’t a victimless crime.
At present there is no reason to be optimistic that the next drug-legalization boondoggle can be averted. Instead, in the years to come, the increasingly obvious ills of cannabis and the attendant social pathologies will be explained away as long as they can. Then the people who should have been responsible will say they wish they had known better.
At least some of us will be able to say that we did.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine.