For the first time in recent American history, the average life expectancy of Americans has gone down and experts believe that the opioid crisis is a big part of the reason. Yet, this crisis has garnered only one question in seven Democratic presidential primary debates so far.
People of faith cannot allow the opioid epidemic to be pushed into the shadows. Too many people are suffering. Jesus Christ called us to see and tend to the ill and to those who are victimized beside the road (Mt. 25:36; Lk 10:29-37).
This crisis is deeply rooted in American racism and economic injustice. Why racism? In the 1980s and 1990s, the dominant culture considered drug abuse to primarily be a problem for poor people of color. The “solution” was a war on drugs in which our society disproportionately arrested and incarcerated people of color. The present opioid crisis, however, as it has touched more white communities in rural and suburban areas, has led more people to take a passionate approach. This should open all of our eyes to see that we should care for people experiencing drug addiction as victims in need of recovery instead of punishing them as criminals.
The opioid crisis is also rooted in economic injustice. It has reached this magnitude because our government leaders have cowered and failed to confront “Big Pharma.” As is too often the case, the wealthy have victimized the common person.
Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a disease, not a moral failing. Most victims have developed this disease because they received a prescription after a surgery or injury. Neither they nor their doctors realized how addictive it would be for them. Scientists and doctors in the field now know that opioids, including oxycodone, OxyContin, Vicadin, Percocet, morphine, heroin and fentanyl, actually change the brain’s chemistry and function. The brain begins to require the drug for normal functioning.
The victim becomes a different person, and they will do anything to get their drug. If they stop taking the opioid, they become violently ill. When they are cut off from their prescriptions, the disease drives them to a cheaper opioid, heroin (sometimes laced with even more powerful fentanyl), most often resulting in death. Up to 80 percent of people turning to heroin first became addicted to prescription opioids.
In Jesus’ time, people who were blind or lame were not looked upon by the pious as people with a disease or a disability. They were “sinners” who “deserved what they got.” It’s time we stopped doing the same with people struck with the disease of addiction, and the church should take the lead in this change.
Many family members of those who have died from opioid addiction have had difficulty working through their grief because so many stigmatize those who die from addiction. People feel inhibited from talking about their loved one because of fear the loved one will be judged as a morally deficient “addict.” Changing the negative stigma towards opioid addiction is an important step in setting these oppressed mourners free.
Pharmaceutical companies and distributors have made hundreds of billions of dollars by convincing people opioids were not addictive, and then ignoring the crisis they created. The church spoke against injustice during the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and now the movement for climate justice. But the church must also speak truth to powerful corporations for their part in the opioid crisis.
Ecclesiastes tells us: “Again I saw the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power…” (Eccl 4:1). Unfortunately, too much power remains on the side of the huge pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors. They spend more on buying political influence than any other industry.
People of faith need to open their hearts to the addicted and families of those who have died, to encourage recovery and healing. Those victimized by this crisis include teenagers who were just trying to recover from a sports injury, retired people who were trying to treat chronic pain, out of work coal miners seeking relief from old work injuries, and family members who have seen their loved ones mutating from the person they once knew into near-zombies possessed by a demon drug. They are people wounded by a brain-robber and who now lay wounded beside the road. Will we be the neighbor who tends to them?