Wait, WHAT? As it stands, the Sackler family will pay $4.3 billion to victims of their lethal drug OxyContin (and to the victims’ lawyers) but are being protected by a U.S. bankruptcy judge from having to fight further civil suits—without even having to declare bankruptcy.
The Sackler deal reached last month makes about as much sense as Adam Neumann’s getting paid $1.7 billion just for walking away from the smoking rubble he made of WeWork. Or the hypocrisy of all those world leaders and C.E.O.’s who were nailed in the so-called Pandora Papers for evading billions of dollars in taxes. (Everyone knows the Cayman Islands are a good place to park undeclared income; turns out, so is South Dakota.)
Or the current lifestyle of Elizabeth Holmes, who is on trial for a scam so brazen that her company, Theranos, once valued at $9 billion, is now worth less than zero. Yet, courtesy of a new, wealthy husband—a hotel-chain heir—Holmes commutes to court from a 74-acre, $135 million estate in Woodside, California, the Bel Air of Silicon Valley. Trump was the Grifter-in-Chief, of course, but his legacy of truth-shredding lives on at Facebook and, this week, in the farce of Carlos Watson of Ozy Media.
Ours isn’t the Gilded Age; it’s what my co-editor calls “the Grifted Age”—an era where the very, very rich and corrupt can lie, cheat, steal, and, in the Sacklers’ case, kill, without the sort of accountability that most people live by. By and large, they keep their freedom, their fortunes, and their effrontery intact.
It is galling, to say the least, that the Sacklers may not be held fully liable even though family members owned and ran the company and ruthlessly marketed the drug they developed, damning evidence be damned. That’s why the Justice Department, and many state attorneys general, are appealing the bankruptcy court’s decision.
The Sackler deal makes about as much sense as Adam Neumann’s getting paid $1.7 billion just for walking away from the smoking rubble he made of WeWork.
But who knows how long the Sacklers’ lawyers can fan-dance away from that recourse? Meanwhile, the family’s name has been jackhammered off of the Louvre and other cultural outposts. The Sacklers are disgraced, but evidently not riddled with guilt. Many family members believe that they are the ones who are suffering. They are free to feel ill-used in multi-million-dollar mansions in gated communities in a shame-free zone like Palm Beach—the new Paraguay of the disgraced rich.
Their company, Purdue Pharma, is kaput and basically broke, partly because family members, looking ahead, siphoned hundreds of millions from it to offshore accounts before agreeing as part of their bankruptcy deal to contribute $4.3 billion to opioid treatment. And let’s face it: the payout for their deathly epidemic is peanuts compared with the more than $246 billion Big Tobacco was ordered to pay back in 1998.
And nobody seems to be talking about jail time. That’s for minor drug offenders.
The Sacklers’ exact share of responsibility for the government-sanctioned opioid crisis that has killed more than 500,000 people since 1999 is huge but hard to calculate exactly, especially because damage assessments can’t be limited to overdoses, crime waves, and ruined lives.
There are other kinds of poison. Thanks partly to the Sacklers, American distrust of Big Pharma—and the politicians who protect it—is now so deep-wired that more than 700,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus and 70 million are still unwilling to be vaccinated. And when anti-vaxxers say they don’t trust Pfizer or the F.D.A. or the C.D.C., it’s hard to prove that this time—unlike in 1995, when the F.D.A. official who wrongly approved OxyContin ended up working for Purdue—it’s different.
The Sacklers have yet to face a real reckoning. Dopesick, a new dramatic series on Hulu, isn’t that, but it goes a long way toward explaining their role in the opioid crisis. Michael Keaton is remarkable as a dedicated family doctor in a small West Virginia town who is bamboozled by a slick pharma rep into prescribing OxyContin to injured miners, and sees firsthand the ravages of a drug he was told was not at all dangerous. (Purdue instructed sales reps to tell doctors that OxyContin was “a wonder drug” that was 99 percent non-addictive—even though the company knew this was a blatant lie.)
They are free to feel ill-used in multi-million-dollar mansions in gated communities in a shame-free zone like Palm Beach—the new Paraguay of the disgraced rich.
The portraits of addiction in the series, written by Danny Strong and produced by John Goldwyn, are frightening, but the story also focuses on the against-all-odds battle led by a few determined assistant U.S. attorneys and a D.E.A. agent to unmask the powerful family hidden behind phalanxes of lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, and beholden museum directors. The series is based partly on Beth Macy’s book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted America, but some of the series’ characters are composites or fictionalized.
You couldn’t make the Sacklers up. Well, maybe Jesse Armstrong, who created the Roy family in Succession, could. Dopesick conveys how deeply involved in the development and marketing of OxyContin many Sackler-family members were, especially Richard, the longtime president and the son of Raymond Sackler, one of the three brothers who were psychiatrists turned businessmen and founded the family’s pharmaceutical fortune.
Richard, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is the driving force—fussy, obsessive, and monomaniacal about making ever more money. His siblings, cousins, and nieces and nephews are less grandiose but equally focused on enriching their bank accounts.
The Sacklers are a family portrait of the venality of evil in the 21st century, a banal clan driven entirely by greed and so far removed from society that they have no sense of what they are doing to it. We see them huddled in wood-paneled boardrooms in the Sackler wings of museums and in vast, dark dining rooms without guests, music, or laughter. They seem strangely stilted and adrift, almost like the adults in the movie The Sixth Sense.
Dopesick is a spellbinding look at how people with too much money and influence can wreak havoc on the country for decades, but it should come with a warning label: the series is utterly addictive.
Alessandra Stanley is a Co-Editor of AIR MAIL