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Last week, NPR TV critic and adjunct professor at Duke University Eric Deggans hosted a Twitter Spaces discussion on Hulu’s Dopesick—asking hard questions such as whether or not Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are responsible for their roles in the opioid crisis.
The Sackler family’s private company Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin® in 1996—ushering a new era of powerful painkillers. Documents made public last year show how Purdue Pharma actively pushed for more prescriptions of painkillers.
Has the opioid crisis improved? Absolutely not. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a “record high” of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in March 2021—overwhelmingly led by opioids. It’s a complex problem, as opioid restrictions due to the crisis also prevent people with actual pain from receiving their meds.
The limited series on Hulu was created by Danny Strong and stars Michael Keaton, Rosario Dawson, Peter Sarsgaard and William Jack Poulter. Keaton stars as Dr. Samuel Finnix, who caught in the middle of a crisis between drug manufacturers and patients. The limited series is inspired by the New York Times bestseller Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America, written by author Beth Macy.
Macy’s book and the corresponding Hulu series tackle the opioid crisis with a specific focus on Purdue Pharma. The first three episodes of the eight-episode series were released on October 13, 2021, and the latest episode aired Wednesday.
Who’s to Blame for the Opioid Crisis?
The New Yorker tore into the Sackler family’s reputation in 2017—calling the Sacklers “the family that built an empire of pain,” adding that through their “ruthless” marketing of painkillers, millions have died.
In recent years, there has been a massive reckoning. Last year, the Department of Justice announced that Purdue Pharma agreed to plead guilty in federal court in New Jersey to a three-count felony, reaching a whopping $8 billion settlement.
“The abuse and diversion of prescription opioids has contributed to a national tragedy of addiction and deaths, in addition to those caused by illicit street opioids,” said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen. “With criminal guilty pleas, a federal settlement of more than $8 billion, and the dissolution of a company and repurposing its assets entirely for the public’s benefit, the resolution in today’s announcement re-affirms that the Department of Justice will not relent in its multi-pronged efforts to combat the opioids crisis.”
The Sacklers themselves were ordered to pay $4.5 billion, but were able to absolve themselves from some of the allegations. Judge Robert Drain, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, New York called the results bittersweet, because so much of the Sackler’s fortune was diverted to offshore banking accounts.
Then earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson and the “big three” distributors—McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health—agreed to pay a total sum of $26 billion for their roles in the opioid crisis.
The flux of opioids, eventually leading to fentanyl and other painkillers can be traced to Purdue Pharma’s brand of oxycodone.
Cast as the Villain
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much accountability on the end of Big Pharma juggernauts like the Sacklers. “Abusers [of OxyContin] aren’t victims,” Richard Sackler wrote in a 2001 email. “They are the victimizers.”
But Deggans’ discussion asked whether or not the Sacklers should be cast as villains, given the complexity of the situation. He was joined in the Twitter Spaces discussion with NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann, Dopesick author Beth Macy, Dopesick series creator Danny Strong and others.
“There’s so much we need to do, and a lot of it falls right under the umbrella… of unraveling the War on Drugs,” Macy said. “We [should] start treating people less like criminals, stop hammering abusers like Richard Sackler told us to do, and start treating these folks as people with a genuine medical condition, which is what they are.”
In Hulu’s series, Richard Sackler and his family are portrayed as the main villains, however the series does mix up some fact with fiction. Deggans contends that reality is a bit more complex, and that the opioid crisis cannot be analyzed in black and white.
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