One of my first jobs in journalism was as the arts correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. I’d hop on my motorbike in my greasy leathers (which I used to wear around the office, much to my then editor Max Hastings’s consternation) and zoom off to all manner of exhibition and gallery openings, many of them somehow related to the name Sackler.
The Sackler family at the time were the world’s greatest arts philanthropists, with galleries and museums and rooms named after them from New York, London and Paris to the Far East. Like almost everyone, I had no idea of the source of their apparently limitless wealth. But I knew for sure that the Sacklers were a good thing, for art is beautiful and philanthropy admirable, right?
That, though, was another time and another world. Today, I find myself much more in sympathy with the people I would have dismissed back then as rabid, chippy, leftie loons: the ones who say that philanthropy is too often a laundering opportunity for tainted money. This is definitely the case with some of that Sackler dosh and I can say this with some confidence that I won’t be sued because Hulu (available on Disney+) has made an epic docudrama about it called Dopesick.
Dopesick is set during the opioid epidemic (still ongoing) which, since the 1990s, has claimed well over half a million lives in the US (ten times more Americans than were killed in the Vietnam War) and ruined those of millions more. The Sackler family, through their company Purdue Pharma, aggressively marketed one of the worst of these prescription drugs, OxyContin.
OxyContin was sold as a miracle cure for pain, superior to any of the morphine-based drugs on the market because it wasn’t addictive. That, at least, is what the teams of smooth-talking Purdue salesmen were told to impress on all the provincial doctors they assiduously courted. But this wasn’t true. Not only did it fail to provide long-lasting pain relief (take it before you went to bed and you’d likely wake up in the middle of the night in agony) but it turned users into hopeless addicts.
In Dopesick, we witness this disaster from all perspectives: a homely rural doctor (Michael Keaton) unwittingly roped into the scam; Appalachian coal-mining folk transformed into addicted husks; a Purdue sales rep increasingly uncomfortable with his job; the two obscure assistant attorneys Rick Mountcastle and Randy Ramseyer who doggedly investigated and exposed this malfeasance when nobody, including the US legal system, seemed much interested; the whistleblower who helped them; and, of course, the Sackler family themselves, whose company is estimated to have made as much as $35 billion.
And there’s your ready-made answer to the question this sorry tale inevitably provokes: how could anyone knowingly market a product whose deadly capabilities they knew from the beginning? It wasn’t a case of pure evil, Dopesick suggests, so much as greed, entitlement and utter indifference to ordinary humans. The Sacklers had inherited their vast fortune, grown used to living in big houses, and, in the case of lead instigator Richard Sackler, felt justified in keeping it that way by whatever means necessary.
Sackler (Richard) did this by taking a leaf from his Uncle Arthur’s playbook. In the 1960s Arthur had been responsible for promoting ‘mother’s little helper’ Valium (and differentiating it from its similar product Librium) by marketing it as the cure for a condition he had invented called ‘psychic tension’. When it seemed like OxyContin might not sell — and that the family would lose everything — Richard, too, fabricated a hitherto unknown condition called ‘breakthrough pain’.
We fondly imagine — or perhaps the past tense would be more appropriate given events since early 2020 — that there would be all manner of regulatory checks and balances to protect us from these ruthless billionaire pharma predators. But no, it was the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that formally labelled this drug safe (the boss responsible later moving on to a $400,000 a year job at Purdue); and when it came to investigating one of the worst drug-related crimes in US history, the Drug Enforcement Administration wasn’t interested.
Don’t watch Dopesick for the drama which, though well acted in places, is a bit painful to watch and strained (were there really black lesbian miners in remote Maine communities in the 1990s?). Do what I did and watch the eight hour-long episodes on fast-forward, pausing at salient points to marvel that a) such licensed horrors were permitted to happen in the US in our lifetime and b) that somehow, in the teeth of this corrupt, compromised, big money-driven system this vitally important, hard-hitting, damning docudrama somehow got made.
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