‘A story people need to know’: behind a shocking TV series about the opioid crisis

In the revealing new drama Dopesick, starring Michael Keaton, the horrifying story of the painkillers and the company that created them is brought to a wide audience

They have been described as the most evil family in America – not by hyperbolic headline writers or disgruntled employees, but by members of the United States Congress.

The Sacklers owned and ran Purdue Pharma, the company that sold OxyContin, a high-strength painkiller that arguably fueled the opioid epidemic, responsible for the deaths of more than half a million Americans over two decades.

Yet the family has repeatedly dodged full legal or financial accountability. Last month a judge approved a bankruptcy plan for Purdue that will grant the Sacklers sweeping legal immunity and leave much of their fortune intact. Soon, however, they could face judgment in the court of public opinion.

“My goal with this show is to give Purdue and the Sacklers the trial that they never got,” says Danny Strong, executive producer and writer of Dopesick, the first heavyweight TV drama about the opioid crisis. “To show the crimes of this company that was micromanaged by [members of] this family.

When people see the rampant criminal behaviour [of this company] which is so egregious, so shocking, they will understand how this happened and then simultaneously that the institutions of government that are supposed to protect the public from a flagrantly criminal company like this failed. And they didn’t fail by accident.

The classy eight-episode series boasts a blue-chip cast including Michael Keaton (also an executive producer), Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Will Poulter, Kaitlyn Dever and Rosario Dawson. The first two episodes are directed by Oscar winner Barry Levinson; the last two by Strong himself. Inspired by a book by Beth Macy, it premieres on Hulu on 13 October.

Purdue launched OxyContin in 1996, suggesting to doctors that it could be used to treat back aches, knee pain and other common conditions. Richard Sackler, who has served as president and chairman of the company, helped persuade the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve it on the false premise that it was less addictive than other prescription opioids.

The opening episode of Dopesick dramatises Purdue’s hyper-aggressive marketing campaign, which saw hundreds of sales representatives swarm doctors’ offices to push the new wonder drug. A company official tells sales reps the initial rollout will be focused on south-western Virginia, eastern Kentucky and rural Maine and asks them why.

One rep suggests: “They’re mining, farming, logging centres. Places were folks get injured doing labour intensive jobs.”

The official replies: “Correct. These people are in pain. They have hard lives and we have the cure.”

He tells the rep they are being sent “into the wild” and should charm the doctors by treating them to expensive meals, filling their cars with petrol and bribing their receptionists with flowers. “If they’ve got kids, get them tickets to Disney World. If they’re going through a divorce, get them laid.”

Keaton plays one such doctor in a Virginia mining community. The Sacklers, by contrast, are portrayed as wealthy elitists who discuss the latest avant-garde play on Broadway and hold board meetings surrounded by medieval art. The series also focuses on the efforts of law enforcement to take on a seemingly unstoppable corporate giant.

Strong – whose credits include Empire, Recount and Game Change – was approached to tackle the subject by John Goldwyn. Speaking via Zoom from Los Angeles, the 47-year-old recalls: “As I started researching it, I fell down this rabbit hole of disbelief.

“I could not believe what this criminal company did, what they got away with, that one family, and even a small group of people in the family, managed this company that would create this product that would go on to create so much destruction.

“They marketed and sold the product in the most dishonest, mischievous, manipulative way for decades and they got away with it. The whole thing blew my mind. I just couldn’t believe that this happened.”

When Strong realised that a US attorney had brought a case against the Sacklers, and that a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent was investigating them, he saw the dramatic potential. “I thought, oh, this could actually be an explosive piece of muckraking and somewhat of an exciting thriller as we watch these people uncover the crimes of Purdue Pharma.

Will Poulter in Dopesick
Will Poulter in Dopesick. Photograph: SENT IN BY ruby@wdwentertainment.com/Hulu

“If you intercut that with the tragedy of the drug and what it does to people, I thought this could be a really multidimensional piece that not only could be important and tell a story that people need to know, but also do it in a way that’s actually quite compelling and exciting and hopefully a thrilling piece of storytelling.”

The opioid overdose and addiction epidemic is an American tragedy that devastated long neglected communities, spread across the nation and caused 600,000 deaths with no end in sight. Purdue was far from the only source but, critics say, was the loudest voice in transforming medical culture so that narcotics were prescribed at significantly higher rates than in other nations.

Strong says: “Stories of abuse and addiction started coming in within a year. Within about three years, in communities in these ground zero areas – Appalachia, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, rural Maine – crime rates started exploding.

“The communities started transforming overnight. Jails started filling up and almost all of these crimes were OxyContin related: people stealing money for OxyContin, people breaking into pharmacies.”

He continues: “Now, what’s the medical reason behind this happening? The drug is so potent, it’s pure oxycodone, essentially heroin in a pill. It literally damages your frontal lobe, changes your brain chemistry, and you feel like you are going to die if you don’t have it.

“That’s what being called dopesick is, that feeling that you’re going to die if you don’t get your next fix and you can’t recover because your brain chemistry is going to change. It’s a uniquely diabolical drug. And when I say that, I’m not referring just to OxyContin, I’m referring to opium in general.”

But Purdue and the Sacklers had an addiction of their own – to profit – and were quick to deny responsibility by trying to shift blame to “criminal addicts”. In what was a case study in the lobbying power of big pharma, regulators were swayed, action by the DEA blunted and investigations by the justice department watered down.

“It wasn’t just the FDA,” says Strong. “It was elements of the DEA and the justice department and Congress. It’s the entire mechanism of government and the way that Purdue was able to get all of these places to ultimately bend to their will.

“Even these dogged investigators that we portray in the show were ultimately were stifled by superiors. It’s another element of the story that I just find incredibly shocking and worthy of being told.”

Members of the Sackler family are estimated to have made more than $10bn from the drug. They have consistently denied wrongdoing and claimed that the key decisions were made by executives of Purdue – even though members of the family were intimately involved in running the company. (One branch of the Sackler family, the heirs of Arthur Sackler, relinquished any control of the Purdue business prior to OxyContin’s introduction and have derived no profits from its sale.)

Kathe Sackler, a former member of Purdue’s board, told a congressional committee last year: “I have tried to figure out if there’s anything I could have done differently knowing what I knew then, not what I know now. There is nothing I can find that I would have done differently.”

The family launched a website at judgeforyourselves.info that “addresses questions, corrects falsehoods and sets the record straight”, claiming that the Sacklers on Purdue’s board acted ethically and lawfully and that OxyContin was never more than 4% of all opioid prescriptions. (Unfortunately for them, comedian John Oliver launched a parody rival at judgeforyourselves.com.)

Rosario Dawson in Dopesick
Rosario Dawson in Dopesick. Photograph: Antony Platt/Hulu

Yet Purdue has twice pleaded guilty to felonies, first in 2007 over the illegal marketing of OxyContin, then again in 2020 over bribing doctors to prescribe it, lying about the risk of addiction and defrauding the US government.

Strong says: “The thing about Purdue is that pretty much everything that comes out of their mouth is a lie. This is a criminal company that pled guilty in 2007 to criminal misbranding: lying about your product. That’s quite something in American society: to be a felon for lying when you see all the lying that takes place in our national discourse.

“It all started with the big lie, which was less than 1% of people become addicted to it, that the drug was way less addictive than other opioids. That is the big lie of OxyContin but then the lies continued over and over again. They’re just bald-faced liars.”

Purdue faced 3,000 lawsuits from states, local governments, Native American tribes, hospitals, unions and other entities. But the Sacklers have been able to hire the best defence lawyers that money can buy.

Last month’s bankruptcy court ruling meant that the family will give up ownership of Purdue and contribute $4.5bn over a decade – less than half their earnings from the company – while being freed from any future lawsuits over opioids. It was seen by activists as a new low in corporate money buying impunity.

A public reckoning is under way, however. Books such as American Overdose by Guardian journalist Chris McGreal and Pain Killer by former New York Times reporter Barry Meier have shone a light on the Sacklers’ activities. The latter will be turned into a drama on Netflix sure to invite comparisons with Hulu’s Dopesick.

And last year, when David and Kathe Sackler made a rare public appearance on Capitol Hill, they were compared to the Mexican drug cartel leader El Chapo. Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee said: “Watching you testify makes my blood boil. I’m not sure that I’m aware of any family in America that’s more evil than yours.”

Would Strong go that far? “I can’t think of an American family that has done as much harm, destruction, brought so much mass death. What separates this story from cigarettes is the danger of that and the lies was over many generations. In the case of OxyContin, it wasn’t generations: it was a year.

“Within a year, stories of abuse started coming. Within three years, communities were being wildly transformed with crime and overdose rates started spiking. And then this company was able to manoeuvre and continue doing what they were doing, no matter what was in the press, no matter what investigations were against them. That is very unique.

Such exposure could be a painful for a philanthropic family that once took pride in seeing its name inscribed on the walls of museums and universities around the world. History suggests that the Sacklers’ lawyers will be watching Dopesick closely. But should they sue, Strong has been assured that his legal expenses will be covered by Hulu.

“I don’t know if there’s a company that threatens to sue people more than Purdue Pharma,” he says cheerfully. “They are constantly threatening lawsuits and it was a major tactic of theirs for years. But they never actually sued anybody and the reason why is because they’re a criminal enterprise.

“They’re a criminal organisation so if they do it, well, then they would have to be deposed and have to release documents and discovery, all sorts of things that my gut says that they wouldn’t want to do. It’s hard to to sue someone when you’re the actual criminal.”

  • Dopesick starts on Hulu on 13 October and on Disney+ in the UK and Australia on 12 November

  • This article was amended on 13 October 2021 to change a reference to the Sackler family to members of the Sackler family


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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