I don’t know how closely you’ve followed the opioid crisis– it’s gone on so long we’re all a little burnt out– but one recurring theme has been the pivotal role played by politics and politicians. That’s especially true where someone in Congress is worried about getting re-elected. It tends to overwhelm the rest of their priorities. On the other hand, when a seat in Congress is secure, we’re more likely to see brave actions and strong positions.

The vulnerability of elected officials seems to make it pretty easy for powerful special interests to “manage” such issues for their own gain.

One thing has changed: Drug epidemics are no longer largely the work of greedy traffickers across the border. Nowadays their origins are more likely to be traced to corporate enterprise. The illegal sources– the smugglers, drug lords, and cartels – follow in their wake. We might compare it to a race horse drafting behind the early leader. Big business forges the path; it’s their marketing that sells the public on the product. Their army of lobbyists that convinces government to relax their guard.

After the hard work is done, the cartels step in to exploit it.

I’m not accusing Big Pharma of setting out to addict their customers. But neither do they complain much about the revenue that follows. One thing about a customer who’s physically dependent on your product: they always come back for more.

I believe we can no longer explain how drug epidemics are born and persist without also taking a hard look at the political and business forces that enable and support them. After all, an industry lobby can exert pressure on the American political system from inside, in a way that Pablo Escobar could only dream of.

Take vaping. That was initially (and still is) considered an important breakthrough in tobacco cessation. Nonetheless, it’s now clear that the real demand for vape pens has been among young people, and it’s emphatically not because they want to quit cigarettes.

How is the vaping industry responding to this new threat to America’s youth? See for yourself.

I can’t help thinking of a TV classic, David Simon’s The Wire. Idris Elba plays a dope dealer who attends college classes in hopes of bringing modern business practice to the corner drug trade. Watching, we realize how pathetic his attempts are, compared to the real thing. He’s a pale imitation of the predators who wear suits and arm themselves with spreadsheets.

And yet, our legal system seems designed to punish the low level offender while protecting their counterparts in business and government. It’s almost as if the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches have all been subverted to the will of those who profit from drug epidemics.

In that respect, these awful opioid statistics? They’re the symptom, not the disease.