The other day while waiting in line at CVS, I overheard an elderly man arguing about the cost of his prescription medication, which was well over $100. “Won’t my insurance cover it?” he protested. The pharmacist explained to him that the actual price of the drug was over $300 so yes, the insurance company was covering it, after the cost of the deductible. The old man did not have the money and walked away muttering under his breath. Access to medicine becomes a real problem when the supply is restricted and you are in immediate need.
I had my own CVS drama not that long ago myself. After a certain medical procedure, I was given a prescription for Oxycodine; however I was in so much pain that I could hardly stand up. Naturally, there were about eight people ahead of me in line. Luckily there was a folding chair nearby, so I grabbed it to stop from collapsing as I shook uncontrollably with waterfalls of sweat pouring down my face despite the chilly air conditioning. Finally I got to the head of the line. I sat on the folding chair and gasped out my prescription request. As soon as they gave me the pills I ripped open the package and swallowed one without even moving out of line. No one seemed at all shocked or even disturbed by my behavior – which makes me have to assume that they see this kind of thing a lot. When you are in pain, you can’t think about anything else except getting that pain to stop!
As our population ages, these types of problems will increase. Angela, a retired secretary in Boston admitted to me that she became addicted to Oxycontin, the painkiller her doctor gave her after hip replacement surgery. She also suffers residual pain from a neck fracture. If she cannot get her pain pills in time she becomes terribly sick, which has resulted in late night visits from a shady drug dealer. For as long as I’ve known her she’s been trying to wean herself off the pills, and earlier this year she actually became clean. However, this experience reminded her why she was taking the pills in the first place. She was in pain. She could not function! So, she started to take the pills again. The next problem that arose was that her doctor informed her that the continued use of her pain medication, especially coupled with her moderate but regular drinking habits, was destroying her liver. The doctor warned her that she might end up in the hospital soon from liver poisoning.
It makes me so sad that someone should have to choose between dying of liver disease and living with intense pain. It makes me so sad, and indeed outraged, that Americans like Angela and that old man at CVS are being put in desperate situations in want of pain medicine more than twenty years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to corner the market on narcotic poppy flowers. Why aren’t the marines bringing back that sweet sticky sap for their elders to mix with their tobacco? During the Reagan era, white and purple opium resin sold on the streets alongside hashish and marijuana. Opium, a traditional favorite of poets and artists, would make a smoker feel way too happy for his own good, but it was unlikely to cause sudden death. Heroin, a powdered derivative of opium, can easily kill a person overnight. It’s a similar situation with cocaine. South American villagers can chew coca leaves all day while they work the fields, and it gives them some kind of lift like we get from drinking coffee. But when you turn the coca leaves into cocaine, that’s when you have pharmaceutical grade drugs that could kill you overnight, especially if it’s injected or smoked as crack.
Why is it that Americans are suffering from a lack of medicine? How can this be possible, after we have invaded country after country, directly and indirectly, for control over their drugs? The rich have their pills while the poor have their heroin and crack, but why is it that in the United States of America my friend Angela, who is already a cigarette smoker, has never been given the opportunity to see if smoking opium might control her pain in a way that is less poisonous than pills and alcohol? Why are Angela’s friends calling her on the phone crying and begging her to share her painkillers? There are so many people living in pain. Why is pure opium not available to the American public?
Eric Margolis reported in his book, “War at the Top of the World” that during the Reagan administration, opium was transported to Pakistan for processing into heroin, and then was brought through Kosova into Europe for distribution. He mentions shootouts between the FBI and CIA since the FBI was over there to combat drugs while the CIA was there to make money to fund their wars. Then the Taliban took over, outlawing the growing of poppies. It was a huge change. They ran their politics by the force of faith. The Afghan farmers were so convinced that Mullah Omar was their Amir by the will of Allah that they pledged to obey his leadership even if their own children starved to death. According to UN reports, under Taliban rule, the growth of opium poppies was largely reduced. This made America angry. As soon as the US invaded Afghanistan under Clinton, the first thing we did was build local heroin processing plants. So now, once again, we have Afghan farmers growing opium for the world heroin supply, but for some reason the raw opium is only locally available. If an Afghan woman who doesn’t even have food has access to opium to help her baby sleep, why can’t my friend who is going to die if she doesn’t stop taking painkiller pills have some of it? There are people in our neighborhood injecting heroin and leaving needles in the alleyways, exposing people to AIDS, but Angela can’t kill her pain by smoking opium. Why are some drugs legal and some illegal? Why are some drugs available and others unavailable?