They have been described as the most evil family in America – not by hyperbolic headline writers or dissatisfied employees, but by members of the US Congress.
Sacklers owned and operated Purdue Pharma, the company that sold OxyContin, a high-strength painkiller that undoubtedly fueled the opioid epidemic that was responsible for the deaths of more than half a million Americans over two decades.
Yet the family has repeatedly shied away from full legal or financial responsibility. Last month, a judge approved a bankruptcy plan for Purdue that would give Sacklers extensive legal immunity and leave much of their fortune intact. Soon, however, they could be convicted in court for public opinion.
“My goal with this show is to give Purdue and Sacklers the try they never got, ” says Danny Strong, executive producer and author of Dopesick, the first difficult television drama about the opioid crisis. “To show crimes in this company that were micromanaged by [members of] this family.
“When people see the violent criminal behavior [of this company] which is so violent, so shocking, that they will understand how this happened, and then at the same time, that the government institutions that were supposed to protect the public from a blatantly criminal company like this failed. And they did not fail by accident.”
The upscale eight-episode series boasts a blue chip featuring Michael Keaton (also an executive producer), Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Poulter, Kaitlyn Dever and Rosario Dawson, among others. The first two episodes are directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson; the last two by Strong himself. Inspired by a book by Beth Macy, it premieres on Hulu on October 13th.
Purdue launched OxyContin in 1996, suggesting doctors that it could be used to treat back pain, knee pain and other common conditions. Richard Sackler, who has served as president and chairman of the company, helped persuade the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve it on the false premise that it was less addictive than other prescription opioids.
The opening episode of Dopesick dramatizes Purdue’s hyper-aggressive marketing campaign, in which hundreds of sales reps swarmed doctors’ offices to push the new miracle cure. A company official tells sales staff that the first rollout will be focused on southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky and rural Maine and asks them why.
One representative suggests: “They are mining, agriculture, logging centers. Places where people were injured by performing labor-intensive jobs. ”
The official replies: “Correct. These people are in pain. They have hard lives and we have the cure. ”
He tells the representative that they are being sent “out into nature” and should charm the doctors by pampering them with expensive meals, filling their cars with gasoline and bribing their receptionists with flowers. “If they have kids, get them tickets to Disney World. If they are going through a divorce, get them laid. ”
Keaton plays such a doctor in a mining community in Virginia. Sacklers, on the other hand, is portrayed as wealthy elitists discussing the latest avant-garde game on Broadway and holding board meetings surrounded by medieval art. The series also focuses on law enforcement efforts to take on a seemingly unstoppable corporate giant.
Strong – whose credits include Empire, Recount and Game Change – was contacted to tackle the subject by John Goldwyn. Speaking via Zoom from Los Angeles, the 47-year-old recalls: “When I started researching it, I fell into this rabbit hole of unbelief.
“I could not believe what this criminal company was doing, what they got away with, that one family and even a small group of people in the family managed this company that would create this product that would create so much destruction.
“They marketed and sold the product in the most dishonest, naughty, manipulative way for decades, and they got away with it. It all blew into my mind. I just could not believe that this happened. ”
When Strong realized that a U.S. lawyer had filed a lawsuit against Sacklers and that a drug enforcement agent (DEA) was investigating them, he saw the dramatic potential. “I thought, oh, this could actually be an explosive piece of muckraking and a bit of an exciting thriller, as we see these people uncover the crimes of Purdue Pharma.
“If you cut it together with the tragedy of matter and what it does to humans, I thought this could be a truly multidimensional piece that could not only be important and tell a story that people need to know, but also do it in a way it is actually quite compelling and exciting and hopefully an exciting piece of storytelling. ”
The opioid overdose and addiction epidemic is an American tragedy that destroyed long-neglected communities, spread across the country and caused 600,000 endless deaths in sight. Purdue was far from the only source, but according to critics, the loudest voice was in the transformation of medical culture, so drugs were prescribed at significantly higher rates than in other nations.
Strong says: “Stories of abuse and addiction started coming within a year. Within about three years, crime began to explode in communities in these zero areas – Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, Maine in rural areas.
“Communities began to transform overnight. Prisons began to fill up, and almost all of these crimes were related to OxyContin: people stole money for OxyContin, people who broke into pharmacies. ”
He continues: “Now, what is the medical reason behind this? The drug is so potent, it’s pure oxycodone, mainly heroin in a pill. It literally damages your frontal lobe, changes your brain chemistry, and you feel like you’re going to die if you don’t have it.
“This is what’s called dopesick, the feeling that you’re going to die if you do not get your next solution and you can not recover because your brain chemistry is going to change. It’s a unique diabolical substance. And when I say that, I’m not just referring to OxyContin, I’m referring to opium in general. ”
But Purdue and the Sacklers had their own addiction – to profit – and were quick to deny responsibility by trying to shift the blame to “criminal addicts.” In what was a case study of the lobbying business at big pharma, regulators were swung, the DEA’s efforts blunted and investigations by the Justice Department diluted.
“It wasn’t just the FDA,” Strong says. “There were elements in the DEA and the Ministry of Justice and the Congress. That’s the whole mechanism of government and the way Purdue was able to get all these places to eventually bow to their will.
‘Even these rugged investigators that we portray in the show were eventually strangled by superiors. It’s another element of the story that I just find incredibly shocking and worthy of being told. ”
The Sackler family is estimated to have earned more than $ 10 billion. On the fabric. They have consistently denied wrongdoing, claiming that the most important decisions were made by Purdue executives – even though family members were closely involved in running the business.
Kathe Sackler, a former member of Purdue’s board, told a congressional committee last year: “I have been trying to find out if there was anything I could have done differently by knowing what I knew then, not what I know now. . I can not find anything that I would have done differently. ”
The family launched a website at judgeforyourself.info that “addresses questions, corrects false information and sets the record straight”, claiming that Sacklers on Purdue’s board acted ethically and legally and that OxyContin was never more than 4% of all opioid prescriptions. (Unfortunately for them, comedian John Oliver launched a parody rival on judgeforyourself.com.)
Yet Purdue has twice pleaded guilty to crimes, first in 2007 over illegal marketing of OxyContin, then again in 2020 for bribing doctors to prescribe it, lying about the risk of addiction and deceiving the US government.
Strong says: “The thing with Purdue is that pretty much everything that comes out of their mouths is a lie. This is a criminal company that in 2007 pleaded guilty to criminal misconduct: lying about your product. It is something in American society: to be a criminal for lying when one sees all the lies that take place in our national discourse.
‘It all started with the big lie, which was less than 1% of people becoming addicted to the fact that the drug was far less addictive than other opioids. That’s OxyContin’s big lie, but then the lies continued over and over again. They’re just bald liars. ”
Purdue faced 3,000 lawsuits from states, local governments, Native American tribes, hospitals, unions and other entities. But Sacklers has been able to hire the best defense attorneys that money can buy.
Last month’s bankruptcy ruling ruled that the family would relinquish ownership of Purdue and contribute $ 4.5 billion. Dollars over a decade – less than half of their earnings from the company – at the same time as it was freed from any future lawsuits over opioids. It was seen by activists as a new low in corporate money impunity.
However, a public inventory is underway. Books like American Overdose by Guardian journalist Chris McGreal and Pain Killer by former New York Times reporter Barry Meier have highlighted Sackler’s activities. The latter will be turned into a drama on Netflix that will surely invite comparisons with Hulus Dopesick.
And last year, when David and Kathe Sackler made a rare public appearance on Capitol Hill, they were compared to Mexican drug cartel leader El Chapo. Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee said, “Seeing you witness my blood boil. I’m not sure I’m aware of any family in America that is more evil than yours. ”
Would Strong go that far? “I can not think of an American family that has done so much damage, destruction, caused so much mass death. What sets this story apart from cigarettes is the danger of it, and the lies were over many generations. In the case of OxyContin, it was not generations: it was a year.
“Within a year, stories of abuse began to appear. Within three years, communities were wildly transformed with crime, and the number of overdoses began to rise. And then this company was able to maneuver and continue to do what they did, no matter what was in the press, no matter what investigations were against them. It is very unique.”
Such an exposure can be painful for a philanthropic family that once took pride in seeing its name inscribed on museums and universities around the world. History suggests that Sackler’s lawyers will follow Dopesick closely. However, should they sue, Strong has been assured that his legal expenses will be covered by Hulu.
“I do not know if there is a company that threatens to sue people more than Purdue Pharma,” he says cheerfully. “They are constantly threatening lawsuits, and it was a great tactic for them for years. But they have never sued anyone, and the reason is because they are a criminal company.
“They are a criminal organization, so if they do, well, then they should be fired and released documents and discovery, all sorts of things that my gut says they would not do. It’s hard to sue someone when you’re the actual criminal. ”