The Opioid Crisis And The Bad-Faith Republican Who Uses It For Political Gain

The Opioid Crisis And The Bad-Faith Republican Who Uses It For Political Gain

My brother’s name was Chris Reimer. He died of a fentanyl overdose on January 19, 2019. He was 34.

My brother died an addict, but he was much more than that. He was funny, smart, and a talented mechanic. He was an asshole, sometimes, but even when you were mad at him he could make you laugh. He was full of potential and deeply flawed. He was human, and he didn't deserve the fate that befell him.

When I started writing this piece, I wanted to talk about the opioid crisis. I planned on discussing the Sacklers and Purdue Pharmaceuticals and how bad-faith companies like McKesson, in their search for ever-expanding profit and growth, poisoned communities like Kermit, West Virginia by annually pouring millions of doses of hydrocodone into a town of just 400 people. After rewriting this piece four or five times I decided that is a perspective you can get anywhere. If you're interested in how the opioid crisis was manufactured by greedy corporations, politicians, and doctors – or if you just need an excuse to get really angry– seek it out. It’s an infuriating story of how the profit motive pollutes our society. Instead of tracking that same ground, I want to talk to you about the community I came up in and how drugs, particularly opioids, have destroyed the lives of the people I love.

I’m going to get personal here, but before I do I want you to understand something: Nothing that happened to me, none of the stupid shit I did in my youth, is unique to me. My story isn't unique. It instead is a representation of a culture ignored by the upper tiers of society, ignored and abandoned by the political class. A culture and a people left to die by neoliberal austerity, supposed “free trade” agreements and the war on drugs. A people abandoned by their political elites, creating fertile grounds for right wing bad-faith populist demagogues like Donald Trump to forge a bitter, angry base. There are millions of me.

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Mine and my brother’s relationship with drug use started at a point so long ago that I can't even remember it. Try to remember the first time you noticed your parents drinking a beer. Can you? Or was it so ubiquitous in your life that you barely even noticed it? That’s how cocaine, marijuana, crack, and pills were for us. It was just what you did. One of my earliest memories was getting smoke in my eye carrying a joint across the room between relatives. I was three. I can still smell the kitchen in which my dad cooked crack. The odd mix of baking soda and mildew it created is permanently etched into my brain. I remember wanting to play with my dad but being told not to bother him because he was sleeping off a three-day bender. This was all normal to me. Looking back, it's incredible what can be normalized for a child. My parents weren’t bad people. They were working-class, blue-collar people. They gave us a decent home, clothes on our backs and food in our stomachs. They were just fucked up kids, trying to navigate their own trauma and economic conditions the only way they knew how. I don't blame them, I feel sorry for them.

Growing up in this lifestyle, it was natural that my brother and I would use drugs at a very early age. I was ten the first time I smoked weed. My first tryst with cocaine was at age 12. Ecstacy and LSD were not far behind that. I don't even remember the first time I took prescription pills, but I assume it was around there. Before our brains even had a chance to develop, we were numbing them with whatever we could get our hands on. It was just what you did.

My brother introduced me to the drug dealing game at an early age. Around the time I started smoking weed, he started selling it. Mostly just joints to friends, though you'd be shocked by the number of adults willing to buy weed from a 13-year-old. I would go on runs with him, help him count his money and sometimes he'd buy me snacks. It was our bonding time, and I thought he was the coolest person on the planet. I wanted to be just like him. Eventually, as my father dove further and further into extreme crack addiction, my mother decided to move us to Florida. We were going to start over. Instead, we found the drugs were better, cheaper, and more plentiful. That’s when my brother and I discovered the “harder” drugs life had to offer.

Chris didn't live in Florida with us long. His relationship with our mother was turbulent at best. When he was in ninth grade he was expelled. They decided it would be best for both of them for him to move back to Ohio with our father. I was sad to lose the kid I idolized so much, but I was also ready. Four years at Chris’s Drug Trade University had prepared me for the high school life I was about to begin.

Drugs would be the largest motivating factor for me in high school. I found a crew of likeminded users, some of whom I still talk to this day. I started off selling weed, just like my big bro. Eventually, that high wasn’t enough. I moved on to selling and regularly using harder drugs. Ecstasy and cocaine were my preference, and I quickly figured out the best way to feed my addiction was to sell them. The week at school wasn't for learning, it was for doing business that would allow me to have a fun weekend. This cycle continued until I was 16, when I moved out of my mom’s house and moved in with some dancers I met who worked at the local club. At 16, I had basically dropped out of high school and spent all of my time either getting high or figuring out how to get high. We would have massive parties on the weekends and get drunk almost every night throughout the week. As a dealer and an addict, it was never difficult for me to find someone to party with. When I was 17, I looked at my life and the path I was heading down and realized I needed to get out. Luckily, my father was clean by then and had a trailer in which I could live. So I moved to Ohio, worked to support myself, and graduated high school. I haven’t touched cocaine or ecstasy since.

When my brother moved to Ohio, he continued down the path that had begun in Florida. He never went back to high school and instead got involved in the local drug trade. He would make periodic trips to Florida to meet up with me and get cheap drugs, that he could then flip in Ohio. I don't know a ton about this period of his life, just that he lost friends, was almost killed, and decided around the age of 18 that he had enough. He cleaned himself up, got a good job, and was doing pretty good for himself. Around the age of 22, he met a girl and fell in love, they had a baby, then another one, and he seemed genuinely happy. However, as a kid without a high school diploma, his economic options were slim and he had children to support. So when a doctor wrote his first pain pill prescription, Chris turned to the only consistent way of making money he ever knew: Dealing.

Chris wasn't a user at first. We knew firsthand the dangers of hardcore addiction. He’d take some of his pills every now and then but never consistently. Never enough to become an addict. I don't know if it was just the stresses of life or the constant temptation in his pocket but at some point that flipped. He started taking pills every day, barely selling enough to support his own habit, and started down the path that would eventually take his life. His girlfriend started using it around the same time as well. She would die of an overdose in 2014, following a period of trying to get clean. After that, my brother was gone. The loss of the woman he loved broke him. He should’ve gotten better for his children. They deserved that. But Chris wasn't just an addict, he was most likely bipolar, though he refused to acknowledge it. Like most addicts, he didn't use drugs to “get high.” He used to numb himself from the trauma he wasn't able to face.

That is the first thing we need to understand about addiction. Addicts aren't just looking to get high, the type of person that becomes a hardcore heroin addict is looking to get numb.

In the 90s we were taught that marijuana is a “gateway” drug. While it's true the first drug most addicts use is pot, the real gateway drug is trauma. The austerity-driven defunding of mental health resources in the US created the foundation for the ongoing crisis we find ourselves in. Most people need professional help to deal with the trauma of their past in healthy ways. In the absence of that, people will self medicate. You can count on that. When drugs are plentiful and cheap, and they make mental health professionals exceedingly more expensive and difficult to find, what the fuck did they think was gonna happen?

We also need to understand the role the “war on drugs” has played and continues to play in this crisis. Which drugs we permit and which drugs we prohibit has always been a question of race and class. Drugs like coffee and nicotine are permitted because the white settler class enjoyed them and they were considered beneficial to work. Drugs like marijuana were denigrated as drugs for Black and Brown people and considered to make workers lazy and unproductive. That racial and class component continues to this day.

There is the obvious and well-documented racist implementation of bipartisan “tough on crime” policies in the 90s that criminalized crack, a poor Black-associated drug, at a much higher rate than cocaine, a rich, white-associated drug. There are deeper reasons the opioid crisis is considered a “white epidemic.”

Though the opioid crisis has also infected Black and Brown communities, mostly due to the prevalence of fentanyl, they were spared the first wave of the epidemic due mostly to racist doctoral practices around pain and racist societal tropes around work. Doctors for hundreds of years, some to this day, believed Black and brown people had a higher pain threshold. This made them less likely to prescribe opioids to these communities, particularly for moderate pain. Drugs like Vicodin were also considered beneficial to capitalism. Old Ted the bricklayer with a bad back sure was able to work harder when he got his prescription. Doctors, imbued with the racist tropes that become ingrained in a person living in America, were less likely to view Black and Brown people as blue-collar workers and thus viewed the alleviation of their pain as less necessary. Everything in our society is designed to serve capitalism. Drug policy is no different.

As the drug war raged on in the 80s and 90s, and illicit drugs carried higher and higher penalties, pharmaceutical companies found a ready market for people looking for legal ways to get high. Make no mistake, these companies knew exactly what they were doing. The amount of people who live with daily, chronic pain is small. So the chance to make profits is small. To grow their drug empire, these companies lobbied doctors and politicians to remove the red tape keeping opioids from being widely adopted. They used predatory practices to target the same type of demographics drug dealers target. Except the bad-faith legitimacy afforded to them by our institutions allowed them to continue far longer than any drug dealer would have been able.

There is an outsized class component to the drug crisis. These drug pushers specifically targeted the underclass, particularly blue-collar laborers who were more likely to have occupational pain. Working-class people also aided in the wide-scale proliferation of opioids. Seeking alleviation from the post-2008 financial collapse, and 30 years of neoliberal immiseration, opioid prescriptions were a ready income stream for communities long abandoned by their government. Even if you didn't take the pills yourself, it was so easy to get a prescription and sell the whole thing to guys like my brother. In about two hours you could add another one to two thousand dollars a month. When someone’s house is about to be foreclosed on, or their 401k gets wiped out because Wall Street assholes gambled it away, how could you expect them to say no to that? At every step of the process– from the highest CEO at companies like Perdue to the little old lady down the street flipping her monthly prescription– people who knew better ignored the wider implications of their actions in service of the shortsighted profit motive. It didn't matter if lives were being destroyed, not when there was money to be made.

J.D. Vance: The Master Of Opioid Crisis Exploitation

The inability of Democrats to address this crisis, combined with the intransigence of the Republican Party, contributed to the rise of bad-faith populists like J.D. Vance, who successfully used his background – he grew up one town over from me – to cosplay as the spokesman for lower-class communities that had been ravaged by the opioid crisis. Following the release of his shitty book, Hillbilly Elegy – which was made into an even worse movie– liberal Washington elites legitimized Vance as someone who “understood Trump country.” Never mind that Vance graduated from Yale, is fabulously wealthy, and hasn’t been back to his hometown for over a decade. He used this legitimacy to launch his successful campaign for the U.S. Senate, leveraging the pain of his community to win office.

He was doing it for the people he grew up with, he promised. It just so happens that every solution he offers aligns perfectly with the interests of billionaires like the psychopathic Peter Thiel, who bankrolled Vance’s campaign. J.D. is the perfect encapsulation of the type of bad-faith politician we have to reject – those who fake understanding of the plight of the working class, only to use their power to fuck over that same class.

Vance is a pathetic coward who will change his views on a dime if it delivers political power. Vance was famously a critic of Donald Trump, calling him “America’s Hitler” only to flip his view when Trump won the presidency and to beg for Trump's endorsement in the 2022 Senate primary, like the good little lapdog he is. He is the type of opportunistic asshole who will launch a charity supposedly to help people affected by the opioid crisis only to install as its head a doctor who was previously aligned with Purdue Pharma, which perpetuated the crisis.

From America's Hitler to Big Daddy

This type of fake empathy is fucking infuriating and should immediately disqualify someone from attaining political office. I despise the politicians who deride all addicts as “criminals” but at least you know where they stand. I don’t know exactly what Vance will do as senator, but I know for certain he’s not going to lift a damn finger to help his constituents as they die of despair. I do know that he will capitulate to American fascists at every step of the way if he believes it will help him attain power.

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One of the reasons liberals and center-right politicians like Joe Biden are unable to adequately address this crisis or harness people’s concern into a political movement is that by the standard of American politics, the best solutions are considered radical. We need to tear down the punitive carceral state created by the War on Drugs. Look no further than Portugal as an example. In 2000, Portugal was facing a heroin crisis similar to the one we find ourselves in. After 20 years of the same type of punitive drug policies, the Portuguese people demanded something better. Their government legalized all drug usage and used the money that had been allocated to punish drug users to help them instead. The Portuguese government opened safe-use sites and invested in rehabs and community outreach to find people in need of help. They removed the stigma around drugs and instead focused on helping those suffering from addiction. While drug addiction is not eradicated, Portugal is in a much better place than it was two decades ago, when heroin ravaged communities across the country.

Americans must demand the same from our politicians. The War on Drugs has been raging for 60 years and is by all accounts an abject failure. America– the supposed land of the free– incarcerates more of its citizens than any country. Families that were ripped apart by addiction are ripped apart a second time by the carceral state. Addicts, who needed help, instead found themselves with a felony record, limiting their economic opportunities and often driving them back into the life that got them sent to prison. We need to demand wider decriminalization for most if not all illicit drugs. We need safe use sites to not only prevent the spread of infectious disease but to give addicts a safe space to come and talk to people who can help them. We need to invest in communities destroyed by the past 40 years of anti-labor neoliberalism so people won't seek the drug trade for economic opportunity. Vance knows this. For all his moronic, bad-faith political positions, he isn’t dumb.

Yet, most of his prescribed solutions run completely counter to this approach. He wants to gut the social safety net and institute harsher penalties. He highlights the responsibility of the “individual” while ignoring systemic factors that created this crisis and the conditions that perpetuate it. In his time as a senator he has mostly used the fentanyl crisis as a way to attack and demonize migrants seeking asylum at the southern border. Vance denies the efficacy of progressive, effective solutions to the opioid crisis because, frankly, he doesn't give a shit about addicts. He sees them as a launching pad to power and money. To grow up in this life, to see the plight of people firsthand and betray them in this way is craven, immoral, and disgusting.

We need to extend empathy and remove the stigma around addiction or else risk losing a generation of people who deserve better. America is losing 100,000 people a year to opioid overdose. Only by caring for their plight in good faith can we counter the bad-faith political and corporate elites who want to use these people’s suffering for their own gain. We can diffuse the bad faith of drug policy and thereby short circuit the political careers of folks like Vance.

I am not naive enough to think of a future where my brother’s story isn't possible. Poverty and addiction have always been part of the human condition. I only wish it wasn't so fucking common.

Follow Anthony Reimer on Twitter at @mrmeseeksff.