By: Bria Burgamy
Over the past two decades, prescription opioids have wreaked havoc in the United States – despite evidence that the drugs’ manufacturers knew the drugs had potential to do just that. The opioid crisis has claimed more than 200,000 American lives since becoming commonly prescribed in the late 1990s. At the center of the crisis is OxyContin, which was released into the market in 1996 by Purdue Pharma, a multi-billion-dollar company owned by members of the Sackler family.
Barry Meier, a journalist who has covered the opioid epidemic since its inception, says there is evidence that “could have changed the course of an American tragedy, but it was kept in the dark.” Meier was recently given access to a confidential document: the prosecution memo from a case against Purdue in 2006. The memo suggests that Purdue had the knowledge and resources to change the trajectory of prescription opioid addiction and misuse in the U.S. Purdue and the Sacklers have consistently denied allegations the company had knowledge of problems resulting from the use of OxyContin prior to 2000. In reality, from 1997 to 1999, there were 117 reports to Purdue from sales representatives in 29 states – more than half of the country – detailing the prevalence of OxyContin as a popular drug of abuse.
In 2001, residents of Pennington Gap, Virginia (a town of less than 2,000 people) were among the first to hold Purdue responsible. Their efforts were successful enough to get Purdue’s attention. The company responded with a massive $200 million public relations campaign, but the ultimate message was one that blamed the drug’s users. As David Haddox, a Purdue executive, said, “As a physician, I am outraged that people would abuse this medication.”
The following year, a team of prosecutors in Abington, Virginia began investigating Purdue and the Sackler family. Rick Mountcastle was the lead author of the prosecution memo that was recently unearthed by Meier’s confidential source. In an interview with Meier, Mountcastle explained how Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin violated the law. Purdue portrayed OxyContin as less addictive than other painkillers, “and that was false, and they knew it was false,” Mountcastle claims. Advertisements for OxyContin featured people kayaking, exercising, and working. Purdue even distributed beach hats and pedometers bearing OxyContin’s logo. As Art Van Zee, a doctor in Pennington Gap, poignantly noted, “You wouldn’t have a beach hat that says ‘morphine’ on it…or ‘heroin.’”
After four years of investigation, Mountcastle’s team was ready to charge Purdue’s CEO, general counsel, and chief medical officer with felony charges of fraud. Department of Justice official Paul Pelletier was responsible for reviewing the prosecution’s memo and described it as “probably the most detailed prosecution memo I had ever seen” and concluded it was a “righteous case to move forward with.”
Mountcastle and the rest of the team were hopeful. But a meeting between Purdue executives, defense attorneys, and senior D.O.J. officials dramatically changed the course of the case. After that meeting, the D.O.J. decided not to move forward with Mountcastle’s recommendations. U.S. Attorney John Brownlee instead announced a plea deal, in which Purdue pled guilty to “charges of misbranding Purdue’s addictive and highly abusable drug OxyContin.” Purdue would pay over $600 million dollars, but the three Purdue executives would serve no prison time. U.S. District Judge James P. Jones accepted the plea agreement because there was “no proof that justified prison sentences for individuals.” However, Judge Jones never saw the full prosecution memo. The defense was essentially able to swing through a legal loophole because the D.O.J. never brought felony charges against the three Purdue executives. This result allowed Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies to continue with what one victim described as “legal genocide.”
Today, attorneys such as Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey are making another attempt to hold Purdue responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Healey claims that Purdue “built a multi-billion-dollar business based on deceit and addiction” by misrepresenting the risks of opioid use, misrepresenting the addictiveness of OxyContin, targeting vulnerable populations with aggressive marketing, and misleading doctors and patients about the risks of prolonged opioid use.
The Sackler family is currently engrossed in settlement negotiations, with attorneys general, such as Healey, seeking complete expulsion of the Sacklers and Purdue from the opioid business. However, the Sacklers are pushing to continue selling OxyContin for up to seven more years through Mundipharma, another company the family owns. As the battle continues, 46 people will die from prescription opioid overdose per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite Purdue’s multi-billion-dollar status, the opioid epidemic is bigger than Purdue. There are currently over 1,600 lawsuits against various pharmaceutical companies for their roles in the deaths of over 200,000 people. The fight against Purdue is but one battle within the war to end this legal genocide.