President Trump recently visited Manchester, New Hampshire, and released his initiative to combat the national opioid epidemic. While his speech was its usual combative affair, stating, “We’re wasting our time if we don’t get tough with drug dealers and that toughness includes the death penalty,” it provided little legislative measures.
While Trump was speaking in Manchester, I happened to visit Salem, Massachusetts. While walking around Salem’s historic districts, I happened upon two illuminating events. The first took place while I walked past two people, one slurring their words in a lethargic manner, asking the other how much a ‘gram’ cost. I soon stumbled upon another sight over on Essex St.. There was a group of three people out on the cobblestone pathway in front of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), one of which was using a parked bicycle to stand up straight, another who appeared to be leaning on an invisible bar top, and the third splayed out on the cobblestone, violently vomiting onto the ground, into a bush and all over the front of themselves.
These are not isolated incidents. Southern New Hampshire and Massachusett’s Merrimack Valley have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, but it’s not atypical, as fentanyl killed more than 42,000 people nationally in 2016, more than any other previously recorded year.
Settled in 1626, Salem has a rich history, whether for its its significant seaport or local literary idol, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his home, The House of Seven Gables. Yet for all of its tidbits of history, there is a greater attraction to Salem, and that is The Salem Witch Trials.
The witch trials have become a well-known cautionary tale of mass hysteria, one that lead to over 200 people being accused of witchcraft and 20 others being executed because of it. Due process was abandoned and false accusations ran rampant. We know today that it wasn’t the accused that were at fault — the “witches,” it was communal fear and Puritanism.
While Salem proudly displays the witch trial history, it doesn’t seem interested to warn tourists against the fear-induced hysteria that fueled its legitimacy. Instead, much of the city utilizes it as a cornerstone of tourism and commerce, far more interested in the occult/spooky bits of it rather than the barbaric.
That brings me to question: Will what I witnessed today become an attraction in the future? Will there be a bronze statue of a supine, vomitive man installed across from the PEM?
The obvious answer is no — this is nothing more than hyperbole. The more pertinent question is to ask ourselves how we will reflect upon this opioid epidemic in the future.
We view the witch trials as a cultural mistake because the Puritanical residents of Salem truly believed that the Devil’s magic was infesting their city, leading to mass incarceration and executions. Is this any different from how we view the opioid epidemic, where we believe “drug dealers” to be running rampant, disfiguring our cities and families? Isn’t this a revival of the misinformed “War on Drugs”?
Both hysterias are justified by the belief that ne’er do wells are sabotaging communities. The solution for both hysterias are quite similar as well, as Trump professed in Manchester, stating, “The ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty.”
While drug dealers are liable for the opioid epidemic, removing them from the streets will not stop it — there are higher powers more blameworthy than the “witches.” In the words of The Wire’s Lester Freeman, “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.” The opioid epidemic did not start on the streets, rather, it originated with pharmaceutical companies and doctor’s offices.
Purdue Pharma, the producer of the opioid Oxycontin, began selling their product by telling doctors that the drug had a low addiction rate. We now know this to be false. Federal insights currently estimate that 2.4 million Americans are addicted to opioids, while research from the CDC shows that Oxycontin has lead to the deaths of more than 200,000 people. Consider the fact that Purdue Pharma’s net worth exceeds over $13 billion and you start to understand who’s benefiting from and continuing this epidemic.
When we solely attack drug dealers, we are saying, “We are fearful of drugs, and the only way to protect ourselves is to remove them — those in possession of it, selling it and providing it — from our community.” While we remove the dealers from our communities, we leave the pharmaceutical industry untouched.
The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis, not a criminal one. The fault of its continuation is as much on us as it is on the drug traffickers and sellers. Our perception of the opioid epidemic affects our treatment, and if we continue to blame the people in our communities rather than the powers that be it will continue unperturbed.