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Battle of the Social Movements

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports today that the University of Wisconsin’s Pain and Policy Studies Group will no longer accept research funding from Purdue Pharma, manufacturers of Oxycontin.

Oxy = Death

The research group has been under pressure since the Journal’s revelations about this funding stream came to light early in April, prompting a concerned citizens’ letter-writing campaign to UW Chancellor Biddy Martin.  Excerpts from that campaign in the MSJ’s coverage of the story suggest that the energy behind it is similar to that which drove the 19th- and 20th-century female temperance movements that Points Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan blogged about earlier this week.  “Chancellor Martin,” wrote one woman whose son had died of an opioid overdose, “I ask you to look into your heart and soul and help stop the epidemic of death and addiction caused by prescribed opioids.”

What makes this story interesting is its difference from the alcohol temperance campaigns, where dignified, sorrowful, and righteously indignant mothers face off against loutish and

No Sympathy for the (Old) Devil

wholly unsympathetic “liquor interests.”  In the opioids story, by contrast. the pharmaceutical industry and its supporters (late capitalism, insurance companies, the federal government, the bloated and profit-driven healthcare system) are weirdly absent from the narrative.  The bogey-man of the rogue doctor with a prescription pad for hire appears occasionally, but the real force that the prohibition and control advocates are pitted against is the pain management movement, which at one time at least, had roots of grass.  That pressure group is represented in the MSJ story by Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing; its been present on this blog in the writings of Siobhan Reynolds, and is probably most formally organized in the American Pain Society.  The presence of these actors in the story — like the comments that have been posted in response to the MSJ’s coverage (an amazing compendium of citizen skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry, the university system, physicians for hire, and “big government” [they even managed to work public school teachers in there somehow, but hey, it’s Wisconsin!])– suggest that populism of various strains is alive and well in America’s heartland.

Nobody likes a Foucaltian fairy tale about how Big Pharma creates addicts just so the DEA has an excuse to increase police powers better than I do, but I think the bizarre and contradictory tendencies of populist social movements are actually the prime movers in this story– or at least important energizing forces.  They are certainly a large part of what is making it interesting and weird.  Doctors and patients demand drugs that give effective relief from pain; the victims of addiction demand redress of the grievances caused by the diversion and abuse of those drugs.  I said it last week in relationship to Russian alcohol taxes and I’ll say it again here: what’s a poor state to do?  [Ed. note: Some credit for this post is due to Hayden Griffin, at whose spirited dissertation defense these issues were recently discussed.]



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