In the late 90s, just as Purdue Pharma was really starting to push their new prescription opioid Oxycontin, the drug had already taken hold in the rural mining communities that would end up serving as the epicenter of a new opioid epidemic. Folks suffering from coal coking related cancers and whose bodies were broken down from years in the mines were prescribed the drugs, and then their kids and grandkids became addicted to them.
Purdue began pushing the drug with doctors by 1996, shortly after it obtained approval. Within a couple of years, large boxes of Oxycontin promotional items, like coffee mugs bearing the logo and intended for distribution to doctors’ offices, were being sold in local Dollar Tree stores.
Addiction was part of the landscape now, and it left an indelible mark across an entire generation.
While Purdue Pharma continued to claim for years that they were not illegally marketing Oxycontin, or promoting non-therapeutic usage, internal documents indicate otherwise.
The company – including the Sackler family who ran it – were aware that Oxycontin were being misused. They were aware that this was making the company tons of money. But rather than do anything about the unethical writing of prescriptions, or the establishment of pill mills to meet the growing demand, the company continued to enjoy record profits and say nothing.
Or, at least, continued to say nothing publicly and to privately laugh at the very people whose addiction they were profiteering from.
Internal documents and emails show that company executives and sales reps mocked addicts and were fully aware of the negative impact of their drugs on the communities where the opioid epidemic first took hold. Communities like our own.
The company can’t dispute any of this, and they have agreed to pay billions in damages for the pain, death, and destruction they’ve caused – $4.5 billion in fact. But now David Sackler, a former board member of Purdue Pharma, has said he and his family will pull out of that agreement unless they are granted broad immunity from future prosecution. This includes prosecution not only related to Oxycontin and opioids, but any other drug Purdue Pharma has made – including addiction treatment drugs and drugs used to treat opioid related constipation.
Unless they – and their fortunes – are granted these broad protections, they will pull out of the deal. This will mean that instead of paying out the settlement to be split between claimants, each individual state and community, including indigenous tribal nations, will have to take Purdue Pharma to court individually. This is a time consuming and labor intensive process, and one many smaller communities and tribal nations simply won’t be able to afford. In those cases, Purdue will win by default, and the communities they’ve stolen futures from won’t be able to afford treatment for their adult addicts, or healthcare for the children born addicted to the poison the Sackler family pushed.
The Sacklers know this. They know that these smaller states and communities, especially, are relying on this settlement to try to build something better from the ruins of an entire generation Purdue’s drugs helped destroy. They know this, and that’s why they are demanding this immunity now.
Not because they think they are innocent. They’ve been proven guilty already. Their own internal documents indict them.
No, they are doing this now for the same cynical and self-serving reasons they didn’t care to addict our communities in the first place. They’re doing it to protect their own fortunes.
In a just world every penny of the Sackler fortune would be redistributed for treatment and recovery programs. In a just world any family member or executive who knew about the unethical prescription of opioids would be in prison for their role in the scheme.
But in the world we live in, the best we might be able to hope for is letting David Sackler and his family walk away, so our communities can split the $4.5 billion to clean up the mess they left us.
It’s not justice, but it might be the best we can get.