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Hulu’s Dopesick Hammers Purdue Pharma for Role in Opioid Crisis

NPR TV critic, adjunct professor at Duke University. Eric DeggansHosted a Twitter Spaces discussion on Hulu’s Dopesick—asking hard questions such as whether or not Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are responsible for their roles in the opioid crisis.

The Sackler family’s private company Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin® in 1996—ushering a new era of powerful painkillers. Last year’s public documents show that Purdue Pharma encouraged more painkiller prescriptions.

Are the effects of the opioid epidemic improving? It has not. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a “record high” of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending in March 2021—overwhelmingly led by opioids. It’s a complex problem, as opioid restrictions due to the crisis also prevent people with actual pain from receiving their meds.

Danny Strong produced the series, which stars Michael Keaton as Rosario Dawson, William Jack Poulter and Peter Sarsgaard. Keaton portrays Dr. Samuel Finnix. He is caught up in a conflict between patients and drug manufacturers. Inspired by the movie “The Little Prince”, this limited series features Keaton as Dr. Samuel Finnix. New York Times bestseller Dopesick: Drug dealers, doctors and the Drug Company That Addicted AmericaBeth Macy wrote the following:

Macy’s book and the corresponding Hulu series tackle the opioid crisis with a specific focus on Purdue Pharma. Three episodes from the series’ eight-episode first season were broadcast on October 13, 2021. Wednesday’s episode was the last.

Who’s to Blame for the Opioid Crisis?

It New Yorker tore into the Sackler family’s reputation in 2017calling the Sacklers “the family that built an empire of pain,” adding that through their “ruthless” marketing of painkillers, millions have died.

Recent years have seen a huge reckoning. In a staggering $8 billion deal, Purdue Pharma pled guilty last year to a triple felony charge in New Jersey Federal Court. 

“The abuse and diversion of prescription opioids has contributed to a national tragedy of addiction and deaths, in addition to those caused by illicit street opioids,” said Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen. “With criminal guilty pleas, a federal settlement of more than $8 billion, and the dissolution of a company and repurposing its assets entirely for the public’s benefit, the resolution in today’s announcement re-affirms that the Department of Justice will not relent in its multi-pronged efforts to combat the opioids crisis.”

While the Sacklers had to be paid $4.5 Billion, some of these allegations were not true. Judge Robert Drain, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in White Plains, New York called the results bittersweet, because so much of the Sackler’s fortune was diverted to offshore banking accounts.

Then earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson and the “big three” distributors—McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health—agreed to pay a total sum of $26 billion for their roles in the opioid crisis.

The flux of opioids, eventually leading to fentanyl and other painkillers can be traced to Purdue Pharma’s brand of oxycodone. 

Cast as the Villain

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much accountability on the end of Big Pharma juggernauts like the Sacklers. “Abusers [of OxyContin] aren’t victims,” Richard Sackler wrote in a 2001 email. “They are the victimizers.”

But Deggans’ discussion asked whether or not the Sacklers should be cast as villains, given the complexity of the situation. Brian Mann (NPR addiction correspondent) joined him in Twitter Spaces conversation. Dopesick author Beth Macy, DopesickDanny Strong, series creator and other people.

“There’s so much we need to do, and a lot of it falls right under the umbrella… of unraveling the War on Drugs,” Macy said. “We [should] start treating people less like criminals, stop hammering abusers like Richard Sackler told us to do, and start treating these folks as people with a genuine medical condition, which is what they are.”

In Hulu’s series, Richard Sackler and his family are portrayed as the main villains, however the series does mix up some fact with fiction. Deggans believes that reality is more complex than we think and the opioid crisis can’t be seen in a single way.