How much money is a corpse worth? Not a nice peaceful-looking grandmother whose time had come surrounded by her family slipping away peacefully in the hope of resurrection, but a real George Romero cadaver keeled over with little pinpoint pupils and ashen skin and lungs clogged up with inhaled vomit? Would one of those cartoon money bags stuffed with $110,000 do it for you?
Do the division. In the last two decades more than 200,000 Americans have died after overdosing on OxyContin and other opioids; many thousands more have been killed after switching from prescription drugs to heroin, which has become cheaper, more accessible, and, alas, far more potent. In roughly the same span of time, Purdue Pharma, the privately held corporation that manufactures OxyContin, has made more than $22 billion. (Purdue purchased the rights to the drug from the Sackler family, a clan of real-life billionaire super-villains who keep a very low profile despite plastering the world’s museums with their surname.) A decade ago they pled guilty to lying to the public about the addictive nature of their product and were fined $600 million, a tiny red droplet in their overflowing bucket of blood money.
Since the beginning of his campaign President Trump has talked a big game about taking on what we euphemistically refer to as the opioid “crisis” or “epidemic” in this country. So far he has done very little of substance on behalf of the millions of Americans whose lives have been affected and may one day be ended by what we should really insist on referring to as pharmaceutical genocide.
It is one of those amusing incongruities of the Trump era, in which the lines between left and right have blurred significantly, that the national politician who takes the hardest line on drugs is not some law-and-order cowboy hard-ass from the West or the Deep South but a septuagenarian socialist from a New England state best known for producing breakfast condiments. On Tuesday Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation that would attempt to punish these purveyors of death and despair. If passed, the Opioid Crisis Accountability Act of 2018 would impose fines of up to 25 percent on profits from companies found to have misled the public about the nature of their products; more important, it would also give prison sentences to lying pharmaceutical executives, who after all can always make more money.
My only question is why it doesn’t go much further. I am sure I was one of the only columnists in this country who agreed with President Trump when he advocated the death penalty for drug peddlers. It stands to reason that someone who indiscriminately distributes poison to scores or even hundreds of people — for profit, no less — is engaged in activity not meaningfully different from that of a serial killer or an Al Qaeda operative. The response to the president was that he would never dream of subjecting the CEO of a major corporation to the same penalties as a guy in a trailer park in Cuyahoga County, even though the former is ultimately responsible for more deaths. This is surely correct, but there is more than one way of eliminating that absurd double standard.
For the makers of pills that have killed 20 times more Americans than Islamic terrorists have, capital punishment is probably never going to be on the table, regardless of whether it might be considered logical or proportional. This does not mean that Sanders’ bill is not important or valuable. Any meaningful step in the direction of bringing to account those responsible for nearly a quarter of a million deaths is a welcome one. Unfortunately, like many of the best pieces of legislation introduced in either of our federal chambers, this one has no cosponsors in the Senate and is unlikely to attract many soon. Certainly the Republican Party is not likely to get behind the idea of punishing the same “job creators” to whom they just sopped a roughly $50 gazillion tax break. Even those legislators who do not, like Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), routinely rake in six-figure pay-offs from the drug lobby, find the idea of taking pharmaceutical companies to task for the carnage they have unleashed ideologically unconscionable.
Which is why I wonder whether my bar-napkin math above might have been a little optimistic. A little over a hundred grand? For most of our elected officials, the dead bodies of their constituents are worth a lot less.