oxycontin

The OxyContin Story: a Modern Parable

22 September 2023

4.9 MINS

A reflection on Big Pharma, the US Food and Drug Administration, the legal system and modern society.

In 2021:

A federal judge advanced a bankruptcy plan for Purdue Pharma that would shield the owners of the controversial drug company from future litigation related to its opioid painkiller OxyContin.

The deal would require members of the billionaire Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, to forfeit ownership of the company and settle more than 3,000 lawsuits filed against it, paying around $4.3 billion. In return, the family, which is not party to the company’s bankruptcy proceedings, would be immune to future litigation over their role in an opioid drug epidemic that has claimed roughly 500,000 lives. (Nina Golgoski, 2021)

I am not going to replay the OxyContin story from the 1980s into this century that led to doctors across North America prescribing a painkiller that had about 1.5 times the strength of morphine and resulted in untold death and misery.

If you want to learn more, the internet does not make your research easy, but here are two sources I found that seem credible:

The OxyContin Story: a Modern Parable

All of us, subconsciously, expect our communities, societies, and nations to be underpinned by the rule of law and common decency towards our fellow men and women. But the OxyContin story exposes the underbelly of our culture that has rejected God.

Good Intentions

In the beginning, the Sackler family and the local general practitioner saw the need for a safe and effective drug that could bring people’s pain under control and give them back their lives. It would have been wonderful to be a part of this story. Who wouldn’t want to alleviate pain in others?

However, this drive for doing good would tempt you to want to overlook the concerns of a few who might be seeing potential problems. In our story, the US Food and Drug Administration, the FDA, effectively assigned one man to cover the approval of OxyContin. He had grave concerns that this new wonder drug might be addictive.

The Machiavellian Approach

Someone Machiavellian is sneaky, cunning, and lacking a moral code. The word comes from the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote the political treatise “The Prince” in the 1500s, that encourages “the end justifies the means” behaviour, especially among politicians. (Vocabulary.com)

In the end, Purdue Pharma won their approval from the FDA: but the FDA officer who worked on the application now worked for Purdue with a massive pay rise! Were the Sacklers still operating from good intentions, or were they following the money?

Follow the Money

Purportedly, OxyContin reaped between $10 – $20 billion for the Sackler family. So, paying out around $4.3 billion in settlement would hardly touch them.

The Purdue sales representatives were paid by the pill. The more they could persuade their doctors to prescribe, the more they got paid. The doctors were wined and dined and given extravagant gifts to say nothing of being paid by the number of pills prescribed; the higher the strength of the pills naturally made them the most money.

The Philanthropy of the Purdue Executives

One example, from the Yale School of Medicine’s magazine in late 2009:

It would be an understatement to say that philanthropy runs in the family of Richard S. Sackler, M.D., and his brother, Jonathan Sackler. The names of their parents, Raymond and Beverly Sackler, adorn cultural and scientific centers around the world, from the Sackler Galleries at the British Museum to the famed Sackler Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, to the just-launched Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical, and Engineering Sciences at Yale. …

In keeping with their family’s long-standing generosity to Yale, the brothers’ respective foundations have now joined forces to donate a $3 million endowment establishing the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship, expressly intended to be held by those appointed as director of Yale Cancer Center. Richard Sackler said, “My father raised Jon and me to believe that philanthropy is an important part of how we should fill our days.”

I am sure that philanthropy is a tremendous virtue, and countless institutions are direct beneficiaries of discoveries. However, following the money might shine a light on a deeper, darker motive than generosity. Arguably, the Sacklers’ philanthropy could be described as money laundering from their illicit drug trade, while buying them prestige and influence in high places.

Who Gets Busted?

The men in suits and the women in dresses carry on their business meetings unabated. Meanwhile, the FBI swoop in with their dawn raids, smashing down front doors and arresting the drugged-up junkies.

When the US began to wake up to the carnage of so many as a result of OxyContin and to the courage of the few whistle-blowers, their response was to tighten and reinforce their war on drugs. The rich and powerful were immune, respectable, upstanding leaders of society, whose family had been so generous.

Who controls law enforcement?

The Corrupt Judiciary

We don’t want to face this. But look at how the Sacklers got away with murder.

When you file for bankruptcy, you are giving up all your possessions and declaring, essentially, that you don’t have any money left. During the recession, lots of businesses had to file for bankruptcy or declare by law that they were unable to pay off their debts. (Vocabulary.com)

Did the Sacklers have no money left? That was certainly not the case; nevertheless, their professional legal team created the perfect getaway car for them.

The down-and-out drug-addicted street dealer of OxyContin could never afford a legal team of the Sacklers’ calibre. Consider the Sackler lawyer’s coup. Even the best lawyers in the land could not have pulled this off alone. They were surely in collusion with very powerful influencers above them. Where has the rule of law and common decency towards our fellow men and women gone?

Lifelong Addiction

It’s so easy to say: what we need is more detox clinics, and we should put our research efforts into new drugs, such as Naloxone. The reality on the ground is that once hooked, addicts may well go through countless seasons of detox, but they nearly always come back to their drug. Once hooked, it is usually for life, which can be tragically short if they overdose.

The ideal is for them never to try, for them never to feel the peer pressure to conform, as everyone is doing it. Let’s be a society that champions prevention, not harm minimisation.

Our Culture has Deleted God

Without God, we still like to do good, but our heart is quick to deceive us. Without God, we make lots of money and put on a show of generosity. Without God, we never take personal responsibility; rather, we are quick to blame others. Without God, we manipulate and bribe to achieve our selfish goals. All this is so true of a society that has rejected God.

Sadly, we can no longer trust our doctors to have our best interests at heart. We can no longer trust big pharma to be actively pursuing cures, as they are primarily concerned with treating symptoms with lifelong drug dependence.

Furthermore, we can no longer trust our politicians and the judiciary, as they have both colluded with the big corporate monopolies to protect their own interests at the expense of the individual, the victims.

We can pretend this is not all true and try to live our lives under the illusion that everyone out there has our back.

Or, we can mount up with wings as eagles, join up in God’s army and stand up for Jesus, while singing the battle cry of the republic!

___

Photo by Anna Shvets.

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9 Comments

  1. Peter Pearce 22 September 2023 at 6:07 am - Reply

    Jim,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article on the OxyContin crisis. Your reflections on the corrupting influence of Big Pharma and the lack of accountability in the system resonated deeply with me, as someone who battled addiction to pain medication back in the 2010s. I count myself among the lucky ones who managed to escape the destructive grip of these opioids.

    You’ve done an excellent job outlining the perils of OxyContin, but I would like to bring attention to another looming threat: fentanyl. While OxyContin remains a significant problem, fentanyl, often pushed by doctors in hospitals, is five times stronger and exponentially more dangerous. Not only is it being prescribed, but it’s also flooding the black market, with a bulk of supplies being traced back to China. This potent opioid further magnifies the already catastrophic impact on communities across the globe.

    You touch on how our culture has deleted God and common decency. Indeed, these issues extend beyond the Sackler family’s malfeasance and penetrate deep into the heart of our societal values, or lack thereof. This is especially true when you highlight the discrepancy in justice—how the Sacklers remain insulated by their wealth, while those addicted suffer consequences vastly disproportionate to their actions.

    Your call for prevention over harm minimization is spot-on. While we should offer resources for those trying to break free from addiction, we should also focus on stopping these destructive paths before they even begin. And for that to happen, accountability needs to be felt at every level, from the pharmaceutical companies down to the prescribing doctors.

    Thank you, Dr. Twelves, for your insights and for shedding light on this dark chapter in our modern history. Your work contributes meaningfully to the ongoing discourse that is so desperately needed.

    • Jim Twelves 22 September 2023 at 10:51 am - Reply

      Peter, I am deeply moved by your so articulate endorsement. Thank you for highlighting fentanyl. Yes I am aware of this but know next to nothing about it. Unless we, as a a people, take back our nations for God, we will continue to be picking up the pieces of wrecked lives.

      • Kellie Dene 22 September 2023 at 6:09 pm - Reply

        But America is a largely religious country, and this opioid epidemic is primarily an American epidemic as they have a libertarian healthcare system, whereas most other ‘western’ countries have far stricter regulations on prescription medicines, which hold doctors to account. This is especially true in Australia., a far more secular country.

        It was revealed, by leak of an internal memo, that Richard Sackler was very much aware of the addictive potential for OxyContin and relied on this to further enrich himself. The family preyed on vulnerable people.

        Now, that OxyContin has been restricted, the US is experiencing a rise in heroine overdoses, incl. being cut with Fentanyl, and heroine addiction.

  2. Kim Beazley 22 September 2023 at 8:44 am - Reply

    “The men in suits and the women in dresses carry on their business meetings unabated. Meanwhile, the FBI swoop in with their dawn raids, smashing down front doors and arresting the drugged-up junkies…Who controls law enforcement?”

    I’m so glad you brought this to light, Jim. My wife and I last week watched the other miniseries on this, “PainKiller”, on Netflix (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11816814/). It covered all sides of the saga well, and I think your article has pretty well touched every base. The only caveat I would offer is that the language is very strong, so people need to make up their own mind as to whether or not that is a factor that will influence them watching or not.

    But I feel that the fact that the men in suits were getting away with murder while the junkies and low level pushers were suffering the legal consequences needs some clarification. The reason such a dangerous drug was able to “fly under the radar” for so long, first in its approval and then for authorities to “join the dots” was both complex and inevitable.

    As Purdue were basically “piggy backing” an existing pain relief medication, only “tweaking” the ingredients, it didn’t ring any alarm bells, except (as presented in the series) for one person at the FDA who they pressured intensely for over a year to approve the drug.

    And it was for the same reason that peer review scrutiny wasn’t as intense as it normally is, being just a “variation on a theme”.

    One point you haven’t touched on is their marketing strategies, which were presented in the miniseries as being like your worst direct marketing sales nightmare, using young attractive girls as GP reps, who are depicted as “pill pushing Barbies”. Having had a brief but direct exposure to that role myself many years ago, while the marketing of medications at the GP level could always be better, it is, thankfully, a million miles from the horror story that was OxyContin.

    Thankfully, this episode of sociopathic greed (which is how the producers present the Sackler family, sometimes laying it on a bit too thick), by showing the excessive lengths they went to, and in particular their full understanding of their role in the opioid epidemic, yet publicly blaming the victims, who were only “junkies” after all, is an exception to the rule. If it were not, you’d never trust any medication ever again.

    • Jim Twelves 22 September 2023 at 11:03 am - Reply

      Kim, thank you very much for this commentary. Your clarification is most welcome, particularly regarding the original ‘approval’ process being an ‘adaption’ only.
      My wife and I have also seen the PainKiller series. Thank you for referencing it, especially with the language caveat. I made of a point of not mentioning it as I did not really want to highlight such a ‘dramatization’ on the Daily Declaration, as, in addition to the language, the ‘gratuitous violence’, really challenged me. In your words, I think that side of the story was ‘sometimes laid on a bit too thick’. Anyway, I think you did the right thing to bring it up in the comments. Thank you.

  3. Jim Twelves 28 September 2023 at 8:04 am - Reply

    Post Script, an ADH TV report: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnjnLlWjpzA
    Fred Pawle does a great job of describing the modern parable of my piece!

  4. Jim Twelves 30 September 2023 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    A second Post Script: Dr. Suneel Dhand 30 September 2023 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcKM6YXpdvQ

  5. Countess Antonia Maria Violetta Scrivanich 2 October 2023 at 10:14 am - Reply

    I was prescribed this Opioid by a hospital for an injury which should have killed me. I was told I should take it ” forever ” . It didn’t work, so, 2 weeks later I threw it in the bin and went “cold turkey ” despite excruciating pain for 4 months which made me scream in agony. During that time I prayed and now I can walk again without pain and my lost memory has returned. .Given time, often the body heals itself. Modern society is too quick to rush to a quick fix ! I am lucky I did not become an addict.

    • Jim Twelves 2 October 2023 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      Countess, thank you so much for your testimony. I think you have certainly hit ‘a nail on the head’, the addiction to the quick fix, and the ‘faith’ in the pill or the needle as opposed to going to the master physician and targeting the source not the symptom.

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