Medicine

Opinion: Opioid-pushing executives should get jail time, not fines

This post originally appeared on StatNews.

The first time I heard the word “Oxy” was President’s Day, 2001, as my 18-year-old son Eddie was lying in his bed — dead.

“Tell me! Tell me!” I said frantically to one of Eddie’s high school friends. “What did he do? What did he do?”

“An Oxy!”

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“What the hell is an Oxy?” I shouted.

Two decades later, I know more than I ever wanted to know about Oxy, the shorthand name for OxyContin, an opioid painkiller made by Purdue Pharma. Six months after Eddie died, I attended the first congressional hearing on the growing number of OxyContin deaths, or as Purdue’s PR department always referred to it, “OxyContin abuse.”  I’ve attended many hearings, trials, and protests, and read every article and book I could find.

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I’ve been a frequent critic of Purdue Pharma since Eddie’s death. I was a firsthand witness to a plague that would spread across the country, morphing from pills to heroin, and later illicit fentanyl. I seethed as opioid sales rose in eerie parallel to deaths and addictions.

My anger was initially directed at one company. But I’ve come to realize just how many others created and sustained the overdose epidemic.

A quarter-century after OxyContin was launched, we now have a clearer picture of what happened. Many news and magazine articles, books, and documentaries, like the award-winning Hulu series “Dopesick,” have chronicled the opioid epidemic. Now, “American Cartel,” a just-published book by Pulitzer Prize winning authors Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz, has highlighted the scope of criminal behavior beyond Purdue Pharma by detailing the role of the opioid supply chain and other manufacturers and documenting the revolving-door shenanigans between industry, lobby-funded politicians, and the supposed guardians of suspicious pill orders — the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

Hard-won document releases and the creation of the Opioid Industry Documents Archive have further detailed how this epidemic became a human-made, greed-fueled and wholly preventable catastrophe.

But even after all these years, due to courts sealing records and settlements that have long prevented the truth from getting out, we still don’t know the full story.

“I see fines with some frequency and think that they are expensive licenses for criminal misconduct,” said the late Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.) at a congressional hearing in 2007, shortly after Purdue Pharma pled guilty in federal court to fraudulent marketing practices. “I do not know whether that applies in this case, but a jail sentence is a deterrent, and a fine is not.”

Thanks to journalists and activists, we now know there was a 120-page prosecution memo that recommended felony charges in 2007, but that neither the judge nor the congressional committee was privy to the damning evidence in it.

In 2020 Purdue Pharma pled guilty again in court, this time to three felonies, thus becoming a recidivist offender.

In 2022, drug distributors and Johnson & Johnson finalized a $26 billion opioid settlement.

With frightening regularity, new opioid settlements are struck. The one thing they share is that the corporations involved pay back only a fraction of the profits they made off the ever-worsening overdose crisis.

One consulting company, McKinsey & Company, coached many of these players — including the Food and Drug Administration — as the opioid epidemic mushroomed.

We also know now about the revolving door of government employees going to work for, or lobbying, the very companies they once oversaw, which hastened the epidemic. They enabled various opioid makers and distributors to continue business as usual as the death toll rose.

While more than 1 million Americans have died of overdoses since 1996, the forfeiture of a fraction of the blood profits being paid in fines over multiple years while companies’ ill-gotten treasure troves, some hidden in offshore accounts, keep earning interest, is simply viewed as the cost of doing business.

Until white-collar criminals go to jail, these behaviors will continue.

Roughly one-third of Americans have been affected by drug use since Purdue Pharma launched its so-called miracle drug in 1996. Overdose deaths are predicted to surpass 2 million by 2029.

Purdue Pharma is not alone in skirting justice and, until owners of offending companies face real justice in criminal courts, this skirting will surely repeat itself at the cost of more lost lives.

The more truth that is revealed, the more outrage I feel at how greed fueled the opioid epidemic. The government failed to protect its citizens, but it can make amends by providing true justice, not just fines. For the sake of my family — and yours — the Department of Justice needs to bring criminal charges against the executives who perpetuated the overdose crisis and, against all fines and hand-slaps to the contrary — continue to sell, sell, sell.

Ed Bisch is an information technology worker in Trenton, N.J., the founder of Relatives Against Purdue Pharma, a member of the Opioid Industry Documents Archive’s National Advisory Committee, and a member of several groups and committees battling the overdose and fentanyl poisoning crisis. He also has a claim in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy and is a member of the ad hoc committee on accountability in the case.

This post originally appeared on StatNews.