Recently, the media has been filled with glee around the guilt of the Sackler family (Purdue Pharma) in the origins of the Opioid Epidemic. I have no interest in arguing on their behalf, because the avarice and lack of compassion in their decisions is obvious and really not up for debate. But it interested me that they were singled out, and that the media was willing to simplify the whole epidemic down to the choices of one, rich, Jewish family. I am sensitive to the specter of anti-Semitism, because of the endless role it has played in history, and this struck me as worth examining.
The Sackler family is responsible for OxyContin, one of the opiates that flooded the market in the nineties, and they attempted to downplay the risks of addiction in their marketing campaigns and ignored misuses of their drugs in favor of making an enormous amount of money, but they could have accomplished none of this on their own. Doctors, who knew that opiates were addictive (Morphine has been around for a long time, Opium for much longer), over-prescribed these medications, and some even made an illegal business out of the underground market for opiates (though most did not). Pharmacies and distributors bought larger amounts of opiates than could ever be used responsibly, knowing they were feeding addiction and illegal markets and doing it anyway. We, as a society, defunded and underfunded addiction treatment, ignoring and demonizing substance abusers so that they could not find a way out, even if they’d wanted to. Families ignored, friends ignored, schools ignored, government ignored, and the FDA approved more and more variations of opiates for the marketplace.
It’s also important to recognize that the Opioid Epidemic has become national and world news in the last few years largely because of the rise of Fentanyl, and then Carfentanyl, both of which are more lethal than Heroin, and have led to many overdose deaths. And Fentanyl has nothing to do with the Sacklers. It’s also important to see that when people of color were losing the war against drugs we didn’t call it an epidemic, instead we blamed the addicts themselves for their problems. This time it is young white people who have been dying, and that seems to have made a difference in the coverage.
Another big difference for the current epidemic is the growth of social media, and technology in general. In the past, a teenager might have had to drive forty minutes to the bad side of town to buy drugs. Now, with a text, you can have anything brought to you in ten minutes. Anything. You don’t have to go to the bad part of town, or spend a lot of money; sometimes all you have to do is open the medicine cabinet in your friend’s house. If we are having an opioid epidemic, then we are having a Benzodiazepine and Marijuana Tsunami, with an alcohol chaser. Vapes, which are everywhere now, can easily be adapted for use with all kinds of different, hard, drugs, and used out in the open. In middle school.
The question is, why did this happen? Why were we so eager to believe the lie that opiates could be made non-addictive? Or that addiction is a small price to pay for pain relief? Or that the market can be trusted to make moral decisions?
This is our culture. American culture. The Sacklers were certainly not acting on Jewish law and morality in their decision making; they were, actually, following the prevailing American value that money is good, and drugs are good, and let’s not think too hard about the downsides, or address the complexities, or look at the people who are struggling, because, really, it’s their own fault if they can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
There are reasons other than Anti-Semitism to explain the hatred and blame of the Sackler family in particular. One, there was a recent document release from their trial, and the information in it was really juicy and obnoxious and therefore caught people’s attention. Even more important, a lot of Americans recognized in the Sacklers a stand-in for the Trumps, and there is great satisfaction in seeing a similarly rich, and corrupt, family being brought down.
But their Jewishness made me nervous. It’s always scary for me to see a Jewish person in the news for criminal, immoral, or unjust behavior – not just because what they did is upsetting, but also because of my fear that their crimes will be used against the whole of the Jewish people. The Holocaust is not as far in the past as some people would like to believe, and we’re seeing an upsurge in anti-Semitism everywhere.
I still don’t know if anti-Semitism played any role in the coverage of this. The origins of the Opioid Epidemic are complex and interwoven and need to be addressed from multiple directions. Simplifying it all down to the greed of one company, and one family, felt good for a moment, because it made us feel like we finally had a handle on what happened. But the epidemic is still happening. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to change our laws and policies and culture, in order to prevent more overdose deaths and lives lost to addiction in all kinds of ways. We want to blame someone, like the Sacklers, or Central American migrants, or corrupt doctors, because we want it to be someone else’s fault, and therefore someone else’s responsibility to fix. But that won’t work. This is our problem, and it belongs to all of us.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?