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On the Opioid Overdose Epidemic among Working Class Whites in USA

January 24, 2017 16 comments

As many of my regular readers already know, I have long been a supporter for legalization of all recreational drugs. More than a few of my older posts have talked about issues such as the deliberate insanity of drug prohibition. I have also talked about the peculiar association between a certain kind of racism and the origins of the “war on drugs” in USA. It would be correct to say that the vast majority of official policies against recreational drug use in USA are based in racism and class-ism.

So why were such racist, inhuman and ineffective policies still popular in USA? Well.. because they appeal to the belief systems and worldview of a (if now slim) majority, who still exist in a previous era. To be more precise, anti-drug policies appealed to the white working class by allowing them to feel superior to non-white members of the populace. Furthermore, it allowed them to participate in (and often profit from) the systematic abuse, impoverishment and murder of non-whites. It would be fair to say that the “war on drugs” in USA is really Jim Crow version 2.0- and I am certainly not the first person who has made that comparison.

Now, I am not saying that ALL working class whites supported the “war on drugs” and other anti-drug use measures simply because they were stupid, petty and greedy racists. However even a casual study of trends in american politics during the 1945-2001 era show that support of anti-drug measures (including long minimum sentences, onerous plea bargains, increase in mass incarceration, cutting welfare and other “tough on crime” policies) was largely driven by white racism towards non-whites. It is also worthwhile to point out that support for such policies has little connection to actual rates of violent criminal behavior.

But systemic socio-economic and demographic changes have a way of permanently altering the playing field against those who benefited from the previous status quo.

And that brings us the post-2006 era. As many of you must have read and heard on multiple news outlets- opioid overdose (prescription or otherwise) now accounts for more deaths in USA than either automobile accidents or death by guns. It is also worth noting that the vast majority of those who die by opioid overdose are members of the white working class. Some recent studies have claim that opioid overdose kills more people per year in USA than HIV did at the height of the AIDS epidemic. There are even studies which correlate voting patterns in a given area during the 2016 election to the severity of the opioid overdose problem in that area.

While some want to blame the entire opioid overdose “crisis” on profit-seeking behavior by the pharma sector, it is clear that larger and more systemic forces are at play. Even a cursory look at the location of areas hardest hit by the opioid overdose crisis reveals that these areas were economically depressed for a decade or two before the crisis became noticeable. Furthermore, many states to contain some locales that have been heavily affected by the overdose crisis next door to others that have not been similarly afflicted. Clearly then, big pharma pushing opioid prescriptions to make a quick buck is at best a contributing cause to the problem of widespread opioid overdose.

In my opinion, the long-term social and psychological effects of prolonged economic immiseration are the main cause of the current opioid overdose crisis. It is not a coincidence that areas with high rates of opioid use usually also have high rates of recreational amphetamine use and high rates of alcoholism. The simple fact is that prolonged economic immiseration of areas through loss of well-paying jobs initiates a secondary and tertiary series of changes to the lives of people who still live in that area. These changes ultimately result in an environment which causes people living there to lose any sense of hope and personal agency.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many people living in such areas turn to drugs which blunt their perception of pain and loss (opiates, alcohol) or make them feel happy for short periods of time (amphetamines). Incidentally, that is also why rates of drug use among blacks in certain inner cities have been historically quite high. There is a certain delicious irony in watching supposedly “respectable” members of the white working class turn to high levels of drug use for the same basic reasons as all those non-white people they used to look down upon.

The opioid overdose epidemic among working class whites should be seen as just another symptom of their progressive immiseration under the neoliberal socio-economic order. I should also point out that this class were once the biggest cheerleaders and enablers of the very same predatory capitalist practices and corporate behaviors that have now ruined their lives. It is somewhat funny to watch people go from lecturing others about pull themselves up by their bootstraps to overdosing and dying like the very people they used to look down upon.

I should also point out that the white working class in USA has been historically opposed to expansion of the social safety net and legalization of drugs- because they though it might help those “undeserving” non-whites. I guess they never thought that they would one day end up at the bottom of the barrel.

What do you think? Comments?