Record Numbers of Americans Are Dying of Overdoses. Instead of Justice, We Get Theater | Opinion

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City announced this week that it would be removing the Sackler’s nameplate off of their arts center in response to pressure from activists. “The Guggenheim and the Mortimer D. Sackler family have agreed to rename the arts education center,” a museum spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday. The Guggenheim was not alone; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also removed the Sackler name from a gallery, as did the National Gallery in London this week.

The Guggenheim’s effort is timely, coming on the heels of another devastating statistic: Nearly 108,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2021. And yet, the sad truth is, embarrassing members of the Sackler family will not bring justice to the victims of the opioid crisis and their families, who are once again being offered busy work as though it were meaningful reform. Scrubbing the Sacklers’ name from museums, like suing them in court, amounts to little more than kabuki theater—and everyone but the victims knows it.

Real justice could not be more urgent. America remains mired in a protracted drug-overdose crisis, with over half a million people dead in just a decade. The crisis is being fed by the ubiquity of dangerous fentanyl in the black market. Despite illegal drugs being the culprit in almost every case, the focus of the media and politicians has been on punishing pharmaceutical companies, in particular, members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, for which a major case of civil litigation is ongoing.

But the calls for justice for the victims of opioid addiction rarely rise above the symbolic, things like the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum of Art removing the Sackler name from their nameplates. And this is a far cry from meaningful consequences that would help the victims of the opioid crisis.

But the lawsuit is a far cry from what real justice would look like. “The whole thing is kabuki theater,” says Richard Ausness, a legal scholar and renowned opioid litigation expert from the University of Kentucky Law. He told me that while there is a high emotional charge to these proceedings, the actual bearing on the case is minimal. “It ought to be about money,” Dr. Ausness explained. “About who pays what. And instead, they want to make the Sacklers listen to people complain about them.”

It may surprise you to learn that instead of trying to bring the Sacklers to justice, the Department of Justice has done anything but. On multiple occasions, the family agreed to multi-billion-dollar settlements, like a widely-criticized bankruptcy agreement from September of 2021 which mandated that the Sacklers would forfeit Purdue ownership and shell out $4.3 billion to litigants. But it granted the Sacklers sweeping immunity from opioid lawsuits brought against their company Purdue Pharma and its drug OxyContin. The plan was killed last December by U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, after the DOJ publicly announced they didn’t like how the Sacklers would be immune to further shakedowns lawsuits.

WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK – AUGUST 9: Friends and family members of people who have died during the opioid epidemic protest against a bankruptcy deal with Purdue Pharmaceuticals that allows the Sackler family to avoid criminal prosecution and to keep billions of dollars in private wealth, on August 9, 2021 outside the Federal courthouse in White Plains, New York. For decades the Sackler family, which owned Purdue, knowingly marketed highly addictive painkillers, including Oxycontin. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

So this March, the Sacklers made a new deal, with compensation coming to $6 billion—and immunity from further litigation. Once again, the DOJ pushed to have it overturned, though U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain stood firm and overruled. (DOJ is still pushing for an appeal in the federal appeals court.)

Professor Ausness and others I spoke to believe the case will end up at the Supreme Court, and it’s anyone’s guess what happens then. But as it currently stands, the victims will never see a single cent from civil litigation. Unless specified otherwise by state law, litigation settlement funds are at the discretion of state attorneys general, who have historically allocated the vast majority of opioid litigation money to feed state budgets. What little funds go toward “anti-addiction” projects have been spent on ridiculous efforts that have very little do with addiction, like Michigan’s focus on helping new mothers or West Virginia’s emphasis on public education.

The media and prosecutors should have been honest with victims from the start and admitted that putting the Sacklers in jail was never an option. Remember, in the 1990s and 2000s, the hard push for prescribing opioids was at the behest of the federal government. These companies’ advertising strategies weren’t drastically different from those for any other drug. While Big Pharma’s behavior was unethical, that is not the same as it being illegal.

Meanwhile, Americans are still overdosing on illegal drugs in the hundreds of thousands.

Where are the calls for justice for them?

2 Responses

  1. U know,,has anyone ever seen a single commercial for our medicines,ie essential medicine opiates,” on any t.v. add,commercial anywhere????Yet EVERY SINGLE HOUR it seems we see psychiatry running add’s like,”get a snake bite,call a shrink,,,,or being choked by 500 pounds of weights,call A SHRINK,,, or jeez,,anti=depressant add’s everywhere,,selling psychiatry on every channel ,every hour,,want to loose weight, call a shrink,,,,but never a single add for a medicine,that has literally save 10,000 FROM PHYSICAL PAIN FROM MEDICAL CONDITIONS,, and the sacklers are in court?It seems a bit ass-backwards to me,,,,Furthermore,,how many of these mass school shooting,mass shootings,,,how many were on kolodnys field of business,psychiatry,psychology psychotropics,anti-deprerssants??Again,,jmo,,u r over 18,,NONE OF MY BUSINESS if you WANT to see a shrink,,,,,for some,,talking things out may give a clearer picture,,i don’y know,thus i respect anyone right to choose,and NONE OF MY BUSINESS,, but it appears self evident,that reasonable minds our no longer DICTATING this AGENDA,,,jmo,maryw

  2. The Sacklers don’t have anything to do with the illegal fentanyl trade that is actually causing all the overdoses. This is ridiculous for them to pay $6 Billion just to put a stop to further litigation, but the lawyers are probably raping them even more.

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