August 26, 2019 9:10PM

Shaking Down Drug Makers Won’t Stop IV Drug Users

On August 26 Oklahoma State Judge Thad Balkman ruled that Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma for contributing to the local opioid addiction crisis. Johnson & Johnson sold two opioids: a fentanyl skin patch with the brand name Duragesic, and Nucynta,a synthetic opioid similar to tramadol but stronger.

Nucynta is not as addictive as most other synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids and has been shown to have low levels of abuse in post-marketing studies. Fentanyl skin patches are very difficult and inconvenient to convert for non-medical use. The Drug Enforcement Administration claims that nearly all the fentanyl seized is so-called "illicit fentanyl," manufactured mostly in powdered form in clandestine labs in Asia and Mexico, and then smuggled in to the U.S., sometimes via the Postal Service.

Johnson & Johnson was also charged with contributing to the overdose crisis because it owns two subsidiaries that make the active ingredients and narcotic raw materials used by other opioid manufacturers.

Two other opioid manufacturers, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals, settled with the state, but Johnson & Johnson decided to take the case to trial. Their attorneys say the company plans to appeal the decision.

This is nothing more than a shakedown. As I have written here and here, the government’s own data show no correlation between prescription volume and the non-medical use of opioids or opioid use disorder. In fact, as prescription volume has come down, overdoses have gone up. That’s because as it has become more difficult and expensive to divert prescription pain pills to the underground market for non-medical use, non-medical users have migrated to heroin and fentanyl that the efficient black market is supplying in abundance.

Policymakers and politicians refuse to accept the fact that it is the current policy—drug prohibition—that is the cause of the opioid overdose crisis. Rather than taking a hard look at the dismal failure of America’s longest war, the war on drugs, they just double down on what clearly isn’t working, and seek scapegoats for the death and destruction the war continues to bring.

Oklahoma has extracted some tribute from Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals and, pending appeal, hopes to extract even more from Johnson & Johnson. If enough jurisdictions are successful in getting their piece of the action, we might see drug makers pull out of the pain reliever business altogether. That will not be good for millions of pain sufferers.

While state and municipal coffers may get some quick cash infusions, and some political careers may get a needed boost, this shakedown will not get one IV drug user to pull the needle out of their arm.