The 24th General Synod in 2003 noted that “the emphasis of the United States’ war on drugs continues to be on the production and supply of illegal substances rather than focusing on the demand for drugs in our own land;” and “according to federal statistics, 72% of all users of illegal drugs are white, 15% are African American, and 10% are Hispanic; however, African Americans constitute 36.8% percent of those arrested for drug violations and over 42 percent of those in federal prisons for drug violations.”

That same General Synod resolved to urge “the federal government to: 1. Shift its emphasis from a law enforcement paradigm in favor of a policy that treats drug use as a health problem with social and economic implications. 2. Eliminate racial disparities in U.S. drug laws, such as unequal sentencing for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.” (03-GS-45)[1]

At that time, General Synod could not have predicted the epidemic of opioid addiction that the U.S. has faced over the last decade. Moreover, it would have been hard to predict just how large a role prescribed painkillers – produced by major pharmaceutical companies – would have in the creation of this opioid crisis. This new addiction, born stateside and impacting rural populations the hardest, will need a multipronged approach to resolve.

United Church Funds (UCF) is a financial ministry of the United Church of Christ (UCC), investing on behalf of churches and institutions of the UCC. UCF’s mission is “Investing for a Just World for All,” and as part of this mission, UCF works to make the corporations in which we invest more sustainable and less harmful to communities and creation.

“Faith-based investors have a particular concern with the opioid epidemic. Our clients are churches and mission-oriented organizations that are more challenged to minister to families being torn apart by opioids. UCF believes that it is important for pharmaceutical companies to examine their role in the creation and continuation of the epidemic and to revise their policies and practices to stem this horrendous tide,” said Katie McCloskey, Director of Social Responsibility.

In 2017, UCF joined the Investors for Opioid Accountability (IOA). The IOA consists of 54 investors with over $3.5 trillion in assets under management and reflects the high level of concern investors have about board accountability and oversight of these opioid companies.

The IOA’s corporate engagements focus on adopting or strengthening corporate governance practices that improve board independence, accountability and oversight related to opioid risks. The IOA focuses on opioid manufacturers, distributors and retail pharmacies.

Since its inception in 2017, the IOA has filed 33 shareholder resolutions and engaged with 22 companies resulting in several notable wins:

  • Forced several boards to separate their Chair of the Board from their CEO – thereby creating better oversight.
  • Filed a resolution with Rite Aid, seeking a board report on the risks of opioids to its business and received 61% support from shareholders.
  • Filed a resolution at Amerisource Bergen, a distributor, seeking a policy of “clawing back” executive compensation in instances of misconduct and received 52% support.

UCF recognizes that opioids play a critical role in the treatment of cancer, end of life and certain chronic conditions. However, there is no reason that West Virginia should have received 110 prescriptions per 100 people in 2016.[2] There is no reason that legal opioid prescriptions should have led to a massive uptake of illegal synthetic opioids and heroin.[3]These were avoidable outcomes. Poor oversight and dishonest marketing of pharmaceutical companies abetted this problem.