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The Arts' Fight Against the Opioid Crisis

OxyContin once appeared as the perfect drug. Purdue Pharma and the American Pain Society convinced medical professionals and patients alike of its total merit. Branded as the antidote to pain, OxyContin was not only benign but revolutionary. Widespread prescription led to reliance and addiction. In the United States, the surge in heroin-related fatalities began in 2010, followed by an increase in deaths caused by synthetic opioids in 2013. Today, opioid addiction ravages cities and rurality across America. The crisis also moved transnationally. According to the BBC, Scotland is the epicentre for drug overdose deaths in the UK and Europe, with opiates and opioids involved in eight out of 10 drug-related deaths in 2022. 


In the United States, the numbers are similar. Entire towns become hostage to drugs. The change comes suddenly, almost overnight. In one year, Franklin County in Massachusetts, where I lived for a few years, saw a 144 per cent increase in deaths from overdose, according to a report at the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum. 


Addressing the opioid crisis on a comprehensive level demands long-term systemic changes, including limitations on access to opioids, investment in early childhood education, and the destigmatisation of addiction. Increasing treatment options is also key. Yet, softer preventatives exist. The easiest place to stop addiction is before it starts. Here, literature, including history, and the arts, has done much work to raise awareness. 


Most prominently, Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2021 book Empire of Pain chronicles the history of the Sackler family, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and the marketing strategies that contributed to usage and the epidemic. J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir brought a suppressed American narrative of the cycle of working-class drug abuse to the foreground. Appalachia no longer suffered anonymously. 


In television, shows like Dopesick and Painkiller, although with fictive narratives, depict the reality of becoming an opioid addict and the desperate and near-impossible climb back to normality. In Dopesick, Michael Keaton’s character, Dr Finnix, innocently prescribes OxyContin to his patients, who are largely labourers in the coal country of West Virginia. He later becomes an addict himself. Now aware of the drug’s lethal properties, Dr Finnix experiences unbearable remorse: “These people, my people, trusted me.” Dopesick’s rendering of a family doctor’s addiction and turn against his people emboldens the indiscriminate nature of OxyContin. Opioid addiction chooses its victims blindly. It has no type. 


Dopesick also emphasises the ways families who have been affected by the crisis act against the arts. The series included scenes honouring the 2019 protest at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Led by activist Nan Golden, protestors dropped thousands of fake OxyContin prescriptions in the art museum to punish the institution for its acceptance of donations from the Sackler family. 


Artists are not only creating impactful works, they’re also taking action. According to Pitchfork, since 2022, bands like Animal Collective and Pearl Jam have been advocating the stocking of  Naloxone — the intranasal drug that instantly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose — in concert venues across America. Recognising that live music venues often attract individuals struggling with substance abuse, these artists are pushing for measures to save lives. But this sort of preparation for the habits that often accompany concert-going is not simple. Legal, financial, and political barriers hinder the broad and immediate implementation of the drug. Debates persist over whether Naloxone’s efficacy and accessibility foster drug abuse or combat it. The recent documentary Heroin(e), which follows a judge, a fire chief, and an outreach worker addressing West Virginia’s opioid crisis, presents a convincing argument. “The only qualification for getting into long-term recovery is you have to be alive,” reports the fire chief. Every opportunity to live is an opportunity to recover. Naloxone is a valuable tool, and voices within the arts community champion its availability at locations where substance abuse is prevalent.


Folk musicians have long discussed the dangers of drug addiction in their songs. One classic is John Prine’s ‘Sam Stone’: “But the morphine eased his pain / and the grass grew round his brain.”  Others are Woody Guthrie’s ‘Cocaine Blues,’ and Neil Young’s ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’. This tradition of honest storytelling continues in the face of the opioid crisis. In his 2007 track ‘OxyContin Blues’, Steve Earle doesn’t shy away from portraying the reality of a coal miner's son's dependence on OxyContin. The introduction of the drug to the young man's life seals his fate: “Then my cousin came up from Knoxville / And he taught me a thing or two / Now I’m headed nowhere but downhill / With the OxyContin blues”. 


The proliferation of arts concerning the opioid epidemic brings into question why it is that society takes pleasure in the aesthetics of addiction. Do we give more power to enablers by consuming for enjoyment retellings of the trauma of addiction? These are queries to consider. Nevertheless, the arts emerge as a key tool in spreading awareness and humanising the plight of opioid addiction. To comprehend the nature of this critical period, engaging with these forms of artistic expression proves an essential step in the collective battle against this pervasive crisis. 


Illustration by Lauren McAndrew

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