By Gregory Crofton
Opioid abuse has America in a death grip, and it’s been that way for decades. Why have we been so slow to respond to this massive public health problem?
Money is the shortest answer. But Oscar-winning (Taxi to the Dark Side) filmmaker Alex Gibney digs much deeper in a two-part investigative series “The Crime of the Century” now streaming on HBO Max.
The Sacklers, the family that owns Purdue Pharma, a drug company in bankruptcy, deserve most of the blame. They invented and promoted the drug Oxycontin starting in 1996. This potent controlled-release pain killer led to an explosion of opioid addiction in the United States over the last 25 years.
Gibney, in partnership with The Washington Post, examines this “Opioid Crisis” and in the process reveals how a small-time Food and Drug Administration official named Curtis Wright ultimately made billions of Oxycontin pills available to Americans by rubber stamping this false phrase: “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.”
Oxycotin should only have been prescribed for end-of-life pain related to cancer. Instead doctors across the country began using the drug to treat things like chronic back pain. Pill mills weren’t far behind, neither were terms like “pseudo-addiction.”
Gibney and his team methodically pull apart the roots of the problem with investigative work. They point fingers at Sackler family and its aggressive marketing of Oxycotin, but also blame corrupt doctors, politicians and a former Drug Enforcement Administration official named D. Linden Barber.
Barber worked for the DEA on opioid issues for 11 years before switching sides to work for Big Pharma. Starting in 2011 he helped craft and promote legislation that protects drug companies from DEA enforcement actions.
The most jaw-dropping moments of “The Crime of the Century” show congressional hearings related to the legislation. Many of them involve Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, taking the side of the drug manufacturers.
“Articulate what the efforts are that the DEA is engaged in,” Blackburn said, “… let me move on then if its laborious … nobody is saying it is a game, sir.”
Gibney also reveals how much Big Pharma money was taken by key members of congress, including Blackburn. All told the industry spent $102 million on lobbying in support of the bill from 2014-2016, according to The Washington Post.
The legislation passed unopposed meaning it didn’t even require a vote before President Barak Obama signed the “Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act” into law in April of 2016.
The law has tied the hands of DEA agents in favor of big business when we need these drug laws enforced more than ever. No longer can the DEA act because of an “imminent danger” to the community. Drug company actions now must represent “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,” a much more difficult threshold for law enforcement to meet.
It’s makes you cringe and then get sad when you realize that it’s a relatively common occurrence for an official to leave a government job to make a lot more money working for an industry they once regulated.
Alex Gibney can only do so much. Let’s do our best to make this stop.
Below watch a trailer for “The Crime of the Century.”