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What Does The J&J Ruling Mean For The Opioid Crisis?

Earlier this week, an Oklahoma state justice ruled that pharmaceutical company Johnston & Johnston had twisted the truth regarding their opioid medications and pushed doctors to over-prescribe them to patients, leading to the widespread addiction that continues to afflict many people in the state of Oklahoma and beyond. Johnston & Johnston was required to pay the state of Oklahoma a total sum of $572 million, which equated to one year’s worth of services, to help the state recover from the damages caused by the rampant drug use.  

This trial was a landmark ruling for America’s opioid problem, as it marked the first time that a pharmaceutical company would be found guilty for actively worsening the national crisis. Other similar companies, such as Purdue Pharma, believe this ruling makes it far more likely for similar cases to go in the same direction. Two days ago, Purdue offered a total of over $10 billion to settle 2,000+ opioid cases levied against them, according to NBC News. This offered payment is likely emerging in reaction to the precedent set by the Oklahoma trial: It is very possible for companies to be held liable for their actions during the opioid crisis, and very possible for them to lose much, much more than the $10 billion they currently offer for settlements. 

For many who know of the suffering from or have themselves suffered from the opioid use disorders and the overdose epidemic, this may appear as a landmark victory, and a turning point in America’s “War against Drugs”. In some cases, this may be true, but while pharmaceutical interference may have been one piece of the opioid epidemic puzzle, there are far more moving parts at play. 

According to the SAMSHA-Sponsored CBSHQ Report of 2017, only 26.2% of individuals who had been using painkiller medications recreationally even obtained them through legal means (I.e. from a doctor or multiple doctors). The report stated that the most common form of acquisition was through friends or relatives, who had handed out the medications for free. The remaining 20.2% of individuals had stolen or illegally purchased the medication from a friend or stranger. 

In addition, a study of Non-Medical Prescription Opiate (NMPO) Use by researcher Richard F. Catalano, CAS affiliate Helene R. White and their team suggests that for many, this habit begins very early, with just over 1/3rd of surveyed HS students and young adults admitting to having used opiates recreationally at some point. At their age, it is highly unlikely that they would be obtaining the pills legally.  

The study also showed that nearly 75% of those who had used NMPO had previously been frequent users of cocaine. However, by age 20, the usage rate of NMPO was higher than the usage rates for cocaine, psychedelics, amphetamines, sedatives, or heroin. 

Nearly 75% of NMPO had previously used cocaine.

But don’t let all this information deflect the blame from the pharmaceuticals currently under attack… It is very possible that, through over-prescription of these medications, an excess of opioids began to leak into the illegal marketplace, making them far cheaper to purchase for would-be drug abusers. Indeed, those companies may have played a role in the current crisis, but their actions do not account for the whole picture. 

The Opioid Crisis is a multi-faceted national illness that stems from dozens of combining factors. One of these factors was, very likely, the aggressive prescription of opioid medications by pharmaceutical companies. Other factors include societal issues, such as the illegal sale and distribution of opioids, or cultural factors, such as America’s abundant use of prescription medications . So while this ruling does mark the country’s first major step forward to a long-term solution for the Opioid Crisis, there are still many more victories needed before we can rest easy.

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies.