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Annie Paul | American pain, Jamaican gain?

Published:Tuesday | October 31, 2017 | 12:00 AM

The time has never been better for Jamaica to enter the medical marijuana market with the US reeling from an opioid epidemic in the everlasting hunt for pain relief. Opioids are synthetic derivatives of opium essentially synthetic heroin. Ganja offers much less risky and more effective pain relief than the dangerous opioid-laced drug OxyContin, which has been ruthlessly marketed to Americans since 1995.

The background to this addictive drug is fascinating. An article in the New Yorker titled 'Empire of Pain' details the links between the venerable Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, the company that popularised OxyContin in the US. Known for their art patronage in particular, with a wing of the Metropolitan Museum in New York bearing their name as well as numerous other major museums, galleries and art enterprises, the Sacklers could give lessons in how to convert filthy lucre to Brahminic prestige and honour using the magic wand of art.

The rise of the family and their rapid consolidation and control of the pain industry is the perfect illustration of predatory capitalism at work. One of the wealthiest families in the US, with a collective net worth of $13 billion, the Sacklers are known for their philanthropy. The New Yorker quoted lawyer Joseph Choate's speech when the Met was founded in 1880, coaxing the rich to support the arts:

"Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets, what glory may yet be yours, if you only listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble."

Started by three brothers, who between them had a talent for medicine, marketing and business, the Sackler Firm was founded on the promotion and distribution of tranquilisers like Valium. So effective was their advertising campaign that,"by 1973, American doctors were writing more than a hundred million tranquillizer prescriptions a year, and countless patients became hooked". The best selling novel Valley of the Dolls chronicled Hollywood's addiction to such drugs in the '60s.




Arthur Sackler, who ran the advertising company, started a periodical for doctors called the Medical Tribune that reached 600,000 physicians. Then the brothers bought Purdue, a medicine manufacturing company, and they had the perfect set-up to get America hooked on their drugs. A subcommittee looking into the pharmaceutical industry in the '60s summed up the situation succinctly:

"The Sackler empire is a completely integrated operation in that it can devise a new drug in its drug development enterprise, have the drug clinically tested and secure favourable reports on the drug from the various hospitals with which they have connections, conceive the advertising approach and prepare the actual advertising copy with which to promote the drug, have the clinical articles as well as advertising copy published in their own medical journals, [and] prepare and plant articles in newspapers and magazines."

OxyContin is the extended-release version of Oxycodone, an opiate that alters not only the perception of pain but also mood, giving users an artificial 'high'. It wasn't long before the drug started to be abused, spawning a secondary industry in OxyContin being used for pleasure rather than pain.




While the US reels from opioid addiction, many in the health sector are turning to another more benign drug for help: cannabis. More and more studies are showing that cannabis can be used instead of opioids to treat pain, and to reduce reliance on opioids.

A 2016 University of Michigan study highlighted the following in an article published in the Journal of Pain:

- Cannabis use was associated with 64 per cent lower opioid use in patients with chronic pain.

- Cannabis use was associated with better quality of life in patients with chronic pain.

- Cannabis use was associated with fewer medication side effects and medications used.

The jury is no longer out on ganja's remarkable healing and pain-relieving properties. It may even be that this was what motivated the legalisation of the heavily policed drug in parts of the US in recent years. I'm not sure why the Jamaican government is dragging its feet where capitalising on this positively virtuous drug, whose name is virtually synonymous with Jamaica, is concerned, but I sincerely hope that we don't miss the boat on this one.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice ( Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.comor tweet @anniepaul.