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A Friend Once Warned the Billionaire Behind OxyContin That He "Could Become Pablo Escobar of the New Millennium”

"I hate to say this, but ..." the friend wrote to Richard Sackler in a 2002 email.

by Emma Ockerman
May 29 2019, 5:23pm

An anesthesiologist and friend to Richard Sackler — the billionaire scion behind OxyContin-creator Purdue Pharma — sent an email in 2002 warning that he might be starting to resemble a drug lord.

“I hate to say this, but you could become the Pablo Escobar of the new millennium," the unnamed friend said in an email to Sackler, who was president of Purdue at the time, according to a March deposition recently seen by the Wall Street Journal and CNN.

The reason for the comparison, according to Sackler’s friend, was that a girl they knew was approached in the halls of her private high school with an offer to buy OxyContin. She told the anesthesiologist that the opioid painkiller was a “designer drug and sort of like heroin.”

The friend noted, too, that their local pharmacy dropped $12,000 on remodeling and security due to local cravings for OxyContin.

The email — just a small part of the 460-page deposition in a sprawling multidistrict litigation case against Purdue Pharma playing out in Ohio — foreshadowed the accusations that would trail the OxyContin-maker and the now-infamous family over the next several years.

Though the family and their company have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, the name “Sackler” has become synonymous with Big Pharma and an overdose crisis that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people since OxyContin was introduced in 1996. The family is also known for its philanthropy, and their name graces museums and hospital wings across the country. But some of the recipients of their donations, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, are now saying they’ll turn down any future donations.

Thousands of lawsuits are seeking damages from Purdue Pharma and other opioid-makers and distributors, many of which have been consolidated into a Cleveland, Ohio courtroom. Additionally, more than 500 cities, counties and Native American tribes are suing Richard Sackler and seven members of his family over the promotion of OxyContin and resulting financial gains.

The lawsuits largely center around allegations that the company and its executives stoked the opioid epidemic by claiming OxyContin was a safe alternative to other painkillers through aggressive marketing practices.

The March deposition, which questioned Sackler’s involvement with marketing the highly addictive drug, seemed to hint at that narrative. However, Sackler’s attorney, David Bernick, told CNN that the deposition instead showed how “Dr. Sackler supported Purdue’s action plan for responding to the increasing evidence of widespread OxyContin abuse and diversion.”

"But by this time we knew — that's why we put in programs aimed at high school students. We knew that there was a risk that they'd be presented with OxyContin, illegally presented with OxyContin. And we had programs in place, I believe — my recollection is vague — to try to mitigate this," Sackler said in response to the email sent by his anesthesiologist friend, according to CNN.

The state of Oklahoma, one of the many entities suing Purdue Pharma, reached a settlement with the company in March for $270 million. Purdue Pharma also settled with the U.S. Justice Department in 2007 and agreed to pay more than $600 million in fines relating to allegations over their marketing practices.

Cover image: FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy, in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)