Former opioid addict says pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for drug crisis

  • Video report by ITV News Social Affairs Editor Penny Marshall

A former police officer who battled his own opioid addiction believes pharmaceutical companies who promote the medication "absolutely have to be held accountable" as the first opioid lawsuit begins in the US.

The state of Oklahoma is suing drugs giant Johnson & Johnson in a billion dollar lawsuit and accuses the pharmaceutical company of helping to fuel the opioid crisis in the US.

The epidemic was been linked to 48,000 deaths in 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Around 1,900 federal and state lawsuits have been lodged across the US, but the Johnson & Johnson case is the first to go to trial.

State officials accuse drug companies of fraudulently marketing highly addictive opioids in a way that oversells their effectiveness, but misrepresents how addictive the drugs are.

Dan Gosnell, a recovered opioid addict and former Lieutenant with the Aberdeen, Maryland Police Department, told ITV News he became addicted to the medication after taking it to alleviate his neck and back pain.

He was prescribed opioid medication OxyContin before his surgery for herniated discs and stayed on the pills as he recovered from surgery.

However, after taking the opioid medication for several months he became "completely and utterly physically addicted" to the drug.

"What they don't prepare you for, or I wasn't prepared for, was when that last pill was taken, when the effects wear off, that's when that physical need and withdrawal starts within the body, because you are physically addicted to the substance," he said.

"You get every physical withdrawal symptom, but you have no idea why this is happening to you."

Almost 50,000 deaths were linked to the opioid crisis in the US in 2017. Credit: AP

Just 26 miles south-east of Mr Gosnell's former police patch is Baltimore City - it has the highest overdose fatality rate of any city in the US.

Despite the overwhelming opioid epidemic gripping the city, Bmore Power is trying to save the lives of drug users through naloxone kits.

Known as an opioid overdose reversal drug, naloxone reverses the effects of opioids and can take someone from near death to walking and talking in a matter of minutes, according to the Baltimore City Health Department.

Every day in the US, more than 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses.

Former addict Marvin Jackson says he has saved the lives of about five people through the kits, which you spray in a person's nostrils after an opioid overdose.

He told ITV News the opioid crisis is getting worse: "I'm 52-years-old and it's been a problem for decades, sometimes it lightens up, sometimes it gets worse, but if you ask me, now it's getting worse.

"People that are using, they are getting younger.

"I've seen people that are not even 20 years old, using needles, all you can do it shake your head and pray for them."

Mr Gosnell was a serving police officer at the time his addiction took hold and he fuelled his addiction by raiding prescriptive drugs handed in through a police amnesty.

He even took drugs from the evidence room at the police department - but when pills and the seized drugs ran out he made the "inevitable switch to heroin".

"I wasn't opioid specific, whether it was heroin, whether it was OxyContin, whether it was morphine, you name it, if it was an opioid, that's what I took because that's what made me feel better, made me act like a normal person," Mr Gosnell said.

He ended up taking all sorts of drugs to supplement his opioid addiction which had "overtaken him".

"Every single day when I went to work it was not I need to accomplish A to Z, it was okay I'm here, how can I maintain my appearance, how can I do the minimum amount of work, but most importantly how can I get back inside the drug vault to take what I need to get through the day?" he admitted.

"That was every single day, instead of doing my job."

The former police officer is now recovered and works in a drug rehabilitation centre helping other people with addictions.

  • Venessa Adesina has saved the lives of addicts who have overdosed through the opioid overdose reversal drug, naloxone

Mr Gosnell said opioids have their place as an effective painkiller, but patients need to be educated over what happens to the body when the opioid prescription ends.

He told ITV News, patients should be weaned off and offered alternative drugs, rather than there being an abrupt stop to the medication.

As the first lawsuit begins in the US on the role drugs companies have in the opioid crisis, the ex-police officer said it's a start to hold someone accountable for what has happened to fuel the epidemic, but it's not the only answer.

Bmore Power operates in Baltimore and hands out naloxone kits, which reverse the effects of opioids. Credit: ITV News

"A lot of pharmaceutical companies put out promotional videos that they gave out to medical professionals.

"They are quoted in there as saying that OxyContin has a less than one percent chance of forming an addiction to that product.

"When you absolutely falsely advertise something to that extent, you absolutely have to be held accountable.

"It's definitely a start... but I don't think it's the overall answer, the answer is a much, much bigger picture."

Naloxone is known as an opioid overdose reversal drug. Credit: ITV News

What are opioids?

Opioids are substances that include the illegal drug heroin.

They are primarily used as pain relief and work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain and through the body.

When opioids bind to these receptors, it reduces how much pain a person will feel, which is why the drugs are prescribed to people recovering from serious injuries and surgery.

Synthetic opioids, made by pharmaceutical companies, include oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and many others.