Why Isn’t This Mass Killer In Jail?

The opioid epidemic is without doubt the greatest health emergency of the 21st century in this country. That epidemic was largely created by the greed of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, the oligopoly of prescription drug wholesalers, and greedy, unscrupulous doctors. It has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and destroyed the lives of millions. And it continues to do so.

If you were to name the one person most responsible for this destruction, it would be Richard Sackler, the president of Purdue Pharma in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Simply because it maximized the company’s profits, Sackler instructed that Purdue aggressively market OxyContin as a 12-hour drug when their own internal studies showed that it barely lasted longer than the 6 hours of its nearest competitor. It was marketed with the promise that its addiction risk was “less than 1%”, a claim that was entirely fabricated. Despite the evidence that marketing it as a 12-hour drug actually created dependency, Richard Sackler not only demanded the marketing effort keep going but actively sought to blame the victims. In 2001, Sackler wrote, “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals”. In addition, the company failed to report abuse of the drug that it knew was occurring. Sackler’s cold-hearted greed was best illustrated by his comment upon learning of 59 overdoses in one state alone, saying, “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse”.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma was forced to pay $634.5 million in fines for misrepresenting the dangers of OxyContin and three of its executives pleaded guilty. Those executives did not include Sackler or other member of his family who privately own Purdue. What that judgement did require the company and the Sacklers to do was to refrain from violating the law in the future, a standard promise for corporate wrongdoers. That didn’t stop Richard Sackler and Purdue, who continued to market the drug illegally and in a way that maximized the drug’s dangers, and presumably Purdue profits. At one point, on marketing executive complained about Sackler’s micromanagement, writing, “Anything you could do to reduce the direct contact of Richard into the organization is appreciated”.

For decades, the Sackler family has maintained they engaged in very little hands-on management with the company and thereby avoided the worst of the blame for their product. What this latest suit brought by Maura Healey, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, has shown is that the Sackler family, and especially Richard, were deeply involved in the deceptive and illegal marketing of OxyContin that has destroyed the lives of millions. Not only that, after reaching an agreement with the government to desist from those practices, the Sacklers and the company completely ignored it.

Sackler and Purdue are among the many companies who have proven time and again that these settlement and deferred prosecution agreements, paying fines and promising not to repeat the illegal activity, are not worth the paper they are written on. We’ve seen these agreements fail with multiple Wall Street banks, especially Wells Fargo. Of course, the reason these agreements are constantly violated is because no one ever is really held accountable for the activity in the first place. Like the three Purdue execs, there may be a lower level executive or two that becomes the fall guy, as Goldman Sachs is trying to do to Tim Leissner in its 1MDB scandal. But the real architects or enablers of the illegality stay in place at the top and the activity oftentimes just continues right along, as it apparently did at Purdue.

Sackler is the most extreme example of the failure of our current version of capitalism where no one is ever accountable for corporate malfeasance. The primacy of the shareholder drives management to reach for profits in more and more dubious ways. The shareholders are removed from the day-to-day activity and are therefore blameless, the corporation itself won’t be meaningfully prosecuted because no one wants to see another Arthur Andersen-like failure, and the CEO will still ride off into the sunset or, more likely, to another CEO position with millions in his pocket even in the unlikely event he or she gets fired. Most times, this just results in lots of innocent people getting ripped off. Sackler managed to turn it in to mass murder.

Originally published at thesoundings.com on January 17, 2019.

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