Big Pharma’s Fingerprints Are All Over Seattle’s Homelessness Crisis

On Sunday, amid the Super Bowl advertisements for bad beer and disgusting pizza, was a spot for a pill called Movantik.

Developed by AstraZeneca, the drug is aimed at easing constipation. On the face of it, marketing a product that addresses digestive problems between ads for gut-busting processed food seems genius, if a little gross. But as the voice on TV told us, Movantik is for a different kind of constipation, that caused by long-term opioid use.

Little wonder.

As Francie Diep blogged on the social-science website Pacific Standard, “With so many Americans using opioid painkillers, it was only a matter of time before pharmaceutical companies developed a pill to take care of one of the painkiller’s most common side effects: gastrointestinal distress . . . It’s a sign of the times that . . . AstraZeneca found it worthwhile to buy a Super Bowl spot for their ad.”

But constipation is hardly the only side effect of long-term opiate use, as we are seeing firsthand in Seattle with a homelessness crisis that is clearly tied to rampant addiction.

That many people living on Seattle’s streets today are heroin users raises a number of public-safety concerns, some more legitimate than others. Residents express fears about falling into piles of discarded needles; victims of property crime suddenly have a ready lineup of subjects underneath the bridges; a Ballard business manager says he started pouring water on homeless people’s possessions outside his business because he had previously experienced an overdose on his property.

The shooting that left two people dead in the Jungle two weeks ago has been tied to drug addiction: Police claim the shooters were settling a $500 drug debt for their mom. Police also say the shooters made off from the scene with $100 worth of black-tar heroin.

Big Pharma’s role in America’s heroin epidemic is so well-established it can be taken as fact. To recount the shameful history in one paragraph: The Food and Drug Administration approved the sale of OxyContin in 1995. The drug-maker, Purdue Pharma, aggressively marketed the pill, claiming—with the FDA’s backing—that Oxy was non-habit forming. By 2010, the company was bringing in $3.1 billion a year selling it. As prescriptions rose, so did overdose deaths from prescription painkillers—which quadrupled between 1999 and 2010.

Doctors and policymakers have gotten wise to Big Pharma’s dope-pushing ways, and have tightened access to opioids like OxyContin. However, policy doesn’t erase addiction, and many people who had been feeding their habit with prescription pills turned to heroin.

“If you’re addicted to opiates, and you’ve used opiates for a long time, your brain chemistry has changed,” Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, a drug-use researcher at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, told Casey Jaywork for his story on the spike in heroin addiction (“The Spike,” Aug. 12, 2015). “You lose your free will, because your priorities—literally, your biological priorities in your brain—are rotated around, so that the opiates become number one.”

For every person who ODs on black tar heroin, countless others are left to a more uncertain fate of living life fix to fix—sacrificing family, home, and all else for their next high. Following a homelessness roundtable last week, Dustin Davies told Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat: “Everybody asks, ‘Why is homelessness getting so bad around here?’ I guarantee you it comes back to the heroin epidemic. But that’s the one thing they didn’t talk about in there.”

Outside the roundtable, heroin addiction gets talked about ad nauseam, but only as a reason why compassion should not be shown to those we see living in the margins. They’re not homeless, they’re junkies, this story goes.

No doubt a person who is homeless because of, say, domestic abuse needs different services than one who is homeless because of opiate addiction. But let’s cut the bullshit that every junkie arrived in his situation because he was a hedonist punk who had it coming. “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” John Prine sang, and a lot of that money lined the pockets of pharmaceutical companies who knew exactly what they were doing to this country.

So as the price tag of dealing with homelessness rises—on Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged another $17 million of taxpayer money to the problem—how about we start sending invoices to Purdue Pharmaceuticals? Because we seriously doubt they’re going to be able to come up with a pill to solve homelessness.

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