Grass, Feed, and Drugs


Reader advisory: author buried the lead

Less than a month after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, anonymous letters laced with deadly anthrax spores began arriving at media companies and congressional offices. Over the ensuing months, 22 people were infected by anthrax and five of them died.

The White House asked Congress to appropriate $643 million for the purchase of Cipro, a powerful antibiotic effective in the treatment of anthrax exposure. The president wanted enough to treat 12 million people for 60 days in the event of a broader bioterrorism attack.

Of course, Cipro isn’t just used to prevent death from anthrax. It’s used to treat infections like prostatitis or sinusitis. It’s a weapon against Campylobacter, a bacterium that causes food poisoning and can lead to chronic problems such as Guillain-Barre and reactive arthritis. Campylobacter infects 2.4 million Americans and, without antibacterial treatment, can be fatal.

Since 1996, an antibiotic quite similar to Cipro has been used in poultry to enable huge industrialized farms to produce chicken and turkey at the lowest possible prices. Similarly, cows receive antibiotics so that they can survive on a diet of corn (something cows were not designed to digest) while standing immobilized shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other animals in a sea of their own waste.

Global sales of antibiotics exceed $45 billion, and today, nearly 70% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in livestock. The market for continuing to give these drugs to animals is enormous and the biggest beneficiaries are not cows or chickens or the millions of Americans who eat them. The only winners here are the most dominant agricultural and pharmaceutical companies.

As the use of Cipro and other antibiotics has become more widespread in animal feed, bacteria have increasingly found ways of becoming resistant to them.  Death from antibiotic-resistant infections is becoming a public health crisis big enough to involve the CDC, the WHO and the presidents of a dozen Western countries. man-made health crisis should sound familiar.

The explosion in the number of opioid prescriptions written by doctors followed the exact same basic pattern, with similarly disastrous results: Use led to overuse led to untoward consequences led to an epic public health emergency.

It is mystifying how we, as a country, can be so naïve that we repeatedly allow drug companies to kill or addict us. How we fail to recognize that, while they are generally full of decent, ethical, hardworking individuals, corporations become sociopathic in their insatiable need for profitability.

One of the worst examples is Purdue-Pharma. In the mid-1990s, Purdue apparently thought it insufficient that its then new and powerful opioid, OxyContin, proved helpful in end stage cancer patients. The patients did not have long to live, so the risk of addiction was irrelevant. The drug improved the quality of patients’ remaining days, but the marketplace was small. So Purdue turned OxyContin into a money-machine by finding new markets…like arthritis suffers, and young athletes recovering from surgery or injury, and college kids getting their wisdom teeth extracted, and those with fibro-myalgia, or migraines, or just about anything that made a person say “ouch.”

But to widen the market, the company had to choke off the truth. The risk of addiction was disguised or denied. The upside was extolled and the downside never mentioned.

And then (oops), the unintended consequences kicked in. An epidemic of death and devastation. Other drug companies jumped on the pain bandwagon and now, every year, tens of thousands die or lose  everything to a drug they probably never should have been prescribed. And while communities across the country lay in waste due to the opioid crisis, big Pharma prospers.

The same big Pharma that brings narcotics to the masses has helped make beef, pork and poultry cheaper than ever by encouraging the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. Unfortunately, the consequence of cheap food is (oops) the global threat of mass death due to antibiotic-resistant infections. Thanks to big Pharma and big Agriculture, the Cipro that was, in 2001, our last line of defense against a bioterrorist attack or a fairly common infection, won’t save us today.

And in saying all of this, I have buried the lead.

There are those who believe that the war on drugs has failed. That it now makes sense to legalize everything (or at least marijuana) and introduce another legally marketed, legally purchased drug to the American economy.

Illegal drugs are a problem in this country; they ruin lives and come with terrible social costs. The war against them has terrible unintended consequences and has damaged almost as many lives as the illegal molecules themselves.

But make no mistake: it’s the legal drugs, manufactured and marketed by huge corporations in epic quantities that destroy lives and put whole countries in peril.

If a national, legal marijuana marketplace enables corporations to sell us an endless amount of marijuana, grown on an industrial scale, we’ll see lower prices, stronger and more addictive products that will be marketed aggressively, and, inevitably, we’ll see a few unintended consequences. In other words, legalization of marijuana should not be the primary focus of our concerns. It is, rather, the commercialization of legal marijuana that will, invariably, lead to highly undesirable outcomes. It happened with pharmaceuticals, with tobacco, with beer and spirits, and even with sugar. And it’ll happen with marijuana, because our free market takes no prisoners on the way to increasing profits and market share.

The battleground should not be over the legalization vs. the prohibition of marijuana. It should be, I believe, over the decriminalization vs. commercialization of it. The introduction of any potentially harmful, legal substance cannot come without paying heed to history. And history teaches that when corporations must choose between profitability and the public health…the public health loses every single time.

We either pay attention or, in a few years, we’ll be saying “oops” again.

Howard Weissman is Executive Director of NCADA. This article first appeared in the 2016 Winter Key Newsletter.

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