WASHINGTON — Victims of the opioid crisis and Democrats on Capitol Hill aren’t just furious with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family for fostering and feeding the opioid crisis, they’re now appalled with the Justice Department for letting them secure what amounts to immunity after profiting off of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Last week a federal judge saddened, bewildered and angered many who’ve lost loved ones — or even large blocks of their own lives — to the opioid crisis by approving a bankruptcy deal with Purdue Pharma for the outsized role it had in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Now, the chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee is vowing to try and convince Attorney General Merrick Garland to rescind the agreement.
“It’s deeply disturbing that the Department of Justice has been complicit in devising this plan,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York said at a hearing. “This is a tragic miscarriage of justice.”
She’s pushing the SACKLER Act, a bill to prohibit certain non-debtor releases, such as the bankruptcy order filed for by the Sackler family, which would grant them non-liable status in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy case. Non-debtor releases were prohibited by Bankruptcy Code Section 524(e), yet the Blixseth case in 2020 concluded the code did not prohibit all non-debtor releases, opening the door for the Sacklers to seek immunity through bankruptcy while simultaneously maintaining their assets.
“If this was some small-time crook selling heroin out of their car, that would be two strikes — a mandatory minimum. But not for the Sacklers.”author Patrick Keefe
The current bankruptcy agreement ties the hands of the top prosecutors in each state — 24 of whom oppose the bankruptcy plan.
“It would gut our ability to hold them accountable,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said.
Wasden is the only Republican AG in the nation backing Maloney’s SACKLER Act, which would remove the protection the Department of Justice has agreed to place around the Sackler family and the estimated $10 billion or so they took out of the company to keep it from victims.
SACKLER Act is supported by over 50 Democratic representatives; however Republicans criticize Democratic support for using this bill to deter from what they say is the real drug crisis occurring at the Southern border. Republicans blame the COVID-19 lockdowns for playing a large role in recent spikes in overdoses, as well as suggesting China is playing a huge role in teaching Mexican drug cartels how to manufacture opioids.
“There really is no domestic production of illicit fentanyl taking place here in the US,” former National Drug Control Policy Director Jim Carroll testified when asked about the origins of the drugs.
Rather, Carroll urged lawmakers to visit the border “and see what’s really happening, so we can get a handle on the drugs that are being brought in by the same cartels that are smuggling people.”
That language sounds familiar to many.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about China and Mexico — synthetics being made elsewhere and brought here — where did they learn that from? They learned it from the Sacklers,” Massachusetts Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey said.
Survivors and advocates were having none of those red herrings either. When Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia pressed a witness on “to the distraction from our Republican colleagues who apparently want to talk about anything but the opioid crisis and the responsibility of the Sackler family in creating it,” she said she was “disgusted.”
“It’s stunning to me that this committee has an opportunity to hold the greatest family cartel in the history of the United States and possibly the world responsible for what they’ve done,” Alexis Pleus, whose son was taken by an opioid overdose, told the panel. “And yet here you are distracting from your opportunity by focusing on the Southern border, which is a waste of time, money and resources.”
Like many survivors, Pleus is bewildered. Almost nothing has changed for deadly opioids — especially not to the multi-billionaire families peddling them in doctors’ offices to this day — yet many addicts are incarcerated.
“Despite all experts saying addiction is a medical condition, countless individuals have wound up behind bars for the smallest quantity of drugs,” Pleus, who also founded opioid crisis advocacy group Truth Pharm, testified, “but we have seen no intent to sell, no incarceration, for those heads of the drug empire.”
Many Democrats were also stunned. Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper described the Sackler family as a “drug cartel operating within our own borders.”
Progressives say this is a part of a trend where predominantly white and wealthy Americans are allowed to live by a different set of rules than the rest of us, especially low income people, who are incarcerated at higher rates than the monied class.
“It’s not immigrants or China that are drug-dealing here,” Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib said. “It is these kinds of families that are profiting off of that. And how come we’re not equally committed to addressing these disparities I think is really problematic here.”
“It’s deeply disturbing that the Department of Justice has been complicit in devising this plan. This is a tragic miscarriage of justice.”Chair Carolyn Maloney
Rather, Tlaib says for decades it was the Sacklers — white, wealthy and connected — who were the dealers.
“We’re talking about people right here in the United States using our own systems and court systems to get away with hurting and killing our neighbors, and we’re doing nothing about it,” Tlaib continued. “We’re literally turning our heads and pretending like these private citizens, poor babies, they didn’t do it.”
That there are two Americas is clear to many, because in this case Purdue Pharma actually pleaded guilty — even as the owners moved billions of dollars out of the company to protect themselves.
“The company acknowledged criminal conduct stretching back 10 years. This is a company that has pleaded guilty to felonies, not once but twice,” author Patrick Keefe lamented to lawmakers. “If this was some small-time crook selling heroin out of their car, that would be two strikes — a mandatory minimum. But not for the Sacklers.”