Big Pharma Channeled Opioids to Black Market

opioid addiction

Story at-a-glance

  • Drug company Purdue Pharma is being sued by the city of Everett, Washington, which has been hard-hit by deaths from opioid painkiller and heroin abuse
  • The suit alleges that Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, supplied the drug to suspicious pharmacies and physicians, allowing the drug to be funneled into the black market
  • The case is built around a 2016 investigation, which revealed OxyContin was being trafficked illegally from California to Washington, and suggested Purdue Pharma knew about it but did nothing to stop it


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

The opioid overdose epidemic in the U.S. killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, which is more than any other year on record, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While the opioids referenced include both heroin and prescription opioids, nearly half of overdose deaths involve the prescription drugs.1

Prescription opioids such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine and methadone are widely prescribed for pain relief. Initially, they were intended to treat severe pain following surgery or injury or due to illnesses such as cancer.

However, they’re now increasingly prescribed for many types of pain, including chronic back pain or pain from osteoarthritis. Opioid prescriptions nearly quadrupled in the U.S. between 1999 and 2013, despite reported pain levels remaining stagnant.

By 2014 nearly 2 million Americans were dependent on or had abused the drugs,2 and the situation is only getting worse. There are even reports that one opioid maker — Purdue Pharma — knowingly allowed its drugs to be funneled into the black market.

Drug Maker Sued for Funneling Pills Into the Black Market

Purdue Pharma is being sued by the city of Everett, Washington, which has been hard-hit by deaths from opioid painkiller and heroin abuse.

The suit alleges that Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, supplied the drug to “obviously suspicious pharmacies and physicians and enabl[ed] the illegal diversion of OxyContin into the black market” in the city.3

Mayor Ray Stephanson told CBS News that the city has been significantly damaged and its resources, including first responders and even crews cleaning up syringes in public parks, significantly strained as a result of the drugs flowing into their community.

The case is built around a 2016 investigation by the Los Angeles Times, which revealed OxyContin was being trafficked illegally from California to Washington, and suggested Purdue Pharma knew about it but did nothing to stop it.4 The drug maker is no stranger to litigation. CBS News reported:5

“In 2007, Purdue Pharma and its executives paid more than $630 million in legal penalties to the federal government for willfully misrepresenting the drug’s addiction risks.

The same year, it also settled with Washington and other states that claimed the company aggressively marketed OxyContin to doctors while downplaying the addiction risk. As part of that settlement, it agreed to continue internal controls to identify potential diversion or abuse.”

Anyone Can Become Addicted to Opioids

Even when taken as directed, prescription opioids can lead to addiction as well as tolerance, which means you need an increasingly stronger dose to get the pain-relieving effects.

Physical dependence, in which you suffer withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drugs, can also result along with other issues like increased sensitivity to pain, depression, low levels of testosterone and more.6

“Anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them. In fact, as many as [1] in [4] patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Once addicted, it can be hard to stop,” the CDC notes.7

According to the latest CDC statistics, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic is spiraling out of control not only in the Everett region but across the U.S.

Seventy Percent of Businesses Affected by Drug-Addicted Employees

A staggering 70 percent of U.S. businesses say they have workers affected by prescription drug abuse, according to a new report from the National Safety Council (NSC).8

Seventy-one percent of the employers surveyed agreed that such drug abuse is a disease, but 65 percent still felt justified in firing an employee struggling with drug addiction. NSC reported:9

“Drug poisonings, largely from opioid painkillers, now eclipse car crashes as the leading cause of preventable death among adults. Nearly half of Americans are personally impacted by prescription drug addiction, with 44 percent knowing someone who is addicted to a prescription pain reliever.

Seventy-five percent of those struggling with a substance use disorder are in the workforce, revealing a hidden epidemic that many employers are struggling to address.”

Most employers said they felt unprepared to respond to prescription drug abuse in the workplace, with only 19 percent saying they feel “extremely prepared.”

Most companies lack training to help employees spot signs of misuse, and while about 57 percent said they conduct drug testing on employees, more than 40 percent do not screen for synthetic opioids.

In addition, 88 percent of employers reported interest in their insurer covering alternative treatments for pain relief to help people avoid taking opioids, although 30 percent said they would not take action to request such coverage from their insurance companies.10

West Virginia Struggles to Keep up With Demand for Funerals

West Virginia has a $2 million annual budget to provide funeral assistance for families who cannot afford them. For the last five years, however, the program has been overwhelmed with funerals, driven in part by the opioid epidemic. In 2017, the program is nearly out of money four months before the end of the fiscal year.11

West Virginia had the highest drug overdose death rate in the U.S. in 2015, with 41.5 deaths per 100,000 residents — nearly three times higher than the U.S. average.

Among white males aged 15 to 34, overdose fatalities account for more than 28 percent of deaths. West Virginia funeral director Robert C. Kimes told The Washington Post:12

“When you get an overdose, typically it's going to be a younger individual who's not financially in a great position … I've heard from several funeral directors that the majority of [overdose deaths they deal with] are addressed via the indigent burial program.”

In Connecticut, meanwhile, the chief medical examiner considered renting a refrigerated truck in 2016 to store bodies because the storage space at the medical examiner’s office is often maxed out.

The space shortage is attributed to rising drug overdose deaths, including opioid overdoses, which are pushing many medical examiner and coroner offices to their limits.

In areas like Cincinnati, Ohio, forensic pathologists responsible for conducting autopsies on many such victims conducted more than 325 autopsies in 2016. The National Association of Medical Examiners’ accrediting program puts the limit at 325 a year, and offices that conduct more risk losing accreditation.

Some coroners’ offices are also facing backlogs of DNA testing for drug investigations, again in large part due to overdose deaths.13

Drug Companies Ship 433 Pain Pills for Every Person in West Virginia

A Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation in 2016 revealed that drug companies shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia over a six-year period, as more than 1,700 state residents died from overdoses of the drugs. That’s enough to provide 433 pills for every person (including children) in the state.

As occurred in Washington, drug makers seemingly looked the other way while shipping massive amounts of the drugs to small mom-and-pop pharmacies. The Gazette-Mail reported:14

“For more than a decade, the same distributors disregarded rules to report suspicious orders for controlled substances in West Virginia to the state Board of Pharmacy, the Gazette-Mail found.

And the board failed to enforce the same regulations that were on the books since 2001, while giving spotless inspection reviews to small-town pharmacies in the southern counties that ordered more pills than could possibly be taken by people who really needed medicine for pain.

As the fatalities mounted — hydrocodone and oxycodone overdose deaths increased 67 percent in West Virginia between 2007 and 2012 — the drug shippers' CEOs collected salaries and bonuses in the tens of millions of dollars. Their companies made billions.”

State of Emergency Declared in Maryland

In Maryland, meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency due to opioid addiction and pledged to put another $50 million toward prevention, treatment and enforcement services.

In the first nine months of 2016, nearly 1,500 Maryland residents were killed due to heroin and fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) overdoses, many of whom initially became addicted to prescription painkillers, The Washington Post reported. This is a 62 percent increase from the previous year.15

While the state has yet to detail how the emergency declaration will help stop overdose deaths, it’s expected that law enforcement, social services and public health providers would be coordinated to help achieve the goal. To date, the governor rejected a proposal to create safe sites where heroin users can access clean needles and be monitored to prevent overdose.

A report from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recommended two “safe-drug consumption spaces” be opened in the city of Baltimore, citing similar programs that have been started in cities like Vancouver, which have seen a decrease in overdose deaths.16

Young Mothers Prescribed Poison

These addictive and potentially deadly drugs are even being prescribed to women who have just given birth, putting them and their children at serious risk. One study in Obstetrics and Gynecology revealed that more than 1 in 10 Medicaid-enrolled women filled a prescription for an opioid following vaginal delivery to treat post-delivery pain.17

Fourteen percent of them then went on to fill a second prescription within six to 60 days after delivery. Separate research has shown that 1 in 300 women who fill a prescription for opioids following cesarean delivery go on to become persistent users.18

A second study revealed that young children of mothers prescribed opioids were at a significantly increased risk, by 2.5 times, of overdose.19 Among children, 1 in 10 of overdoses occurred in infants under 1 year, while half occurred in children 2 years or younger. Study coauthor Dr. Yaron Finkelstein told Forbes:20

“One or two tablets of an opioid can be very risky and potentially fatal to a toddler … Obviously, pain needs to be addressed and properly managed. But when physicians prescribe, I think they should consider alternatives to opioids, alternatives that are less addictive, as well as dispensing smaller amounts so there’s none left over in the house that might be accessed by young children.”

Heroin Overdoses Quadrupled in 5 Years

From 2010 to 2015, the number of people who died from heroin overdoses quadrupled in the U.S., reaching nearly 13,000 overdose deaths in 2015. The data, from the National Center for Health Statistics, points to the growing severity of the prescription opioid epidemic as well, as people who use the prescription drugs are 40 times more likely to use heroin — a much cheaper stand-in for the prescription pills.21

The state of Massachusetts also cited a 24 percent rise in opioid overdose deaths compared to last year, including from fentanyl, a drug that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. According to the CDC:22

“ … [M]ost recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose and death in the U.S. are linked to illegally made fentanyl.2 It is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect. It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product — with or without the user’s knowledge — to increase its euphoric effects.”

Massachusetts now has a law in effect that is intended to help fight opioid addiction by putting a seven-day limit on first-time prescriptions for opioid pain relievers.23

Non-Drug Solutions for Pain Relief

Not everyone who takes a prescription opioid will wind up an addict, but the risk is real. This is why I strongly recommend exhausting other options before you resort to an opioid pain reliever, especially for mild to moderate pain. The health risks associated with these drugs are great and addiction and overdose happen far more often than you might think.

If you have chronic pain of any kind, please understand that there are many safe and effective alternatives to prescription and even over-the-counter painkillers. The pain remedies that follow are natural, providing excellent pain relief without any of the health hazards that pain medications often carry.

Astaxanthin: One of the most effective oil-soluble antioxidants known, astaxanthin has very potent anti-inflammatory properties. Higher doses are typically required and one may need 8 milligrams or more per day to achieve this benefit.

Ginger: This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.

Curcumin: Curcumin is the primary therapeutic compound identified in the spice turmeric. In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added only 200 milligrams of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility.24 In fact, curcumin has been shown in over 50 clinical studies to have potent anti-inflammatory activity, as well as demonstrating the ability in four studies to reduce Tylenol-associated adverse health effects.

Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which have been prized for thousands of years. This is one of my personal favorites, as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.

Bromelain: This protein-digesting enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful. Keep in mind that most of the bromelain is found within the core of the pineapple, so consider leaving a little of the pulpy core intact when you consume the fruit.

Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a "joint lubricant" and an anti-inflammatory. I have used a topical preparation for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards.

Evening Primrose, Black Currant and Borage Oils: These contain the fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.

Cayenne Cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmit pain signals to your brain.

Dietary Changes and Additional Pain Relief Options

When physicians don’t know how to effectively treat chronic pain, they resort to the only treatment they know: prescription drugs, which will do nothing to solve the underlying reasons why you’re in pain. Toward that end, if you suffer from chronic pain, there’s a good chance you need to tweak your diet as follows:

  1. Start taking a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat like krill oil. Omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. (In fact, that is how anti-inflammatory painkillers work: they positively influence prostaglandins.) The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA contained in krill oil have been found in many animal and clinical studies to have anti-inflammatory properties, which are beneficial for pain relief.
  2. Reduce your intake of most processed foods as not only do they contain sugar and additives, but also most are loaded with omega-6 fats that upset your delicate omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. This, in turn, will contribute to inflammation, a key factor in most pain.
  3. Eliminate or radically reduce most grains and sugars (especially fructose) from your diet. Avoiding grains and sugars will lower your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin and leptin levels are one of the most profound stimulators of inflammatory prostaglandin production. That is why eliminating sugar and grains is so important to controlling your pain.
  4. Optimize your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain. This satisfies your body’s appetite for regular sun exposure.

Finally, the natural pain-relief methods that follow are useful for ongoing and lasting pain relief and management:

  • Chiropractic adjustments: According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), patients with neck pain who used a chiropractor and/or exercise were more than twice as likely to be pain-free in 12 weeks compared to those who took medication.25
  • Massage: Massage releases endorphins, which help induce relaxation, relieve pain and reduce levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline.
  • Acupuncture: Researchers concluded that acupuncture has a definite effect in reducing chronic pain such as back pain and headaches — more so than standard pain treatment.26


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