• January 26, 2021

All-American Drug Dealers: The Sackler Family Pushed Pills, Killed and Got Off

 All-American Drug Dealers: The Sackler Family Pushed Pills, Killed and Got Off

Original TNS art by Lizzy Oakley Photography

Five years ago, Ohioan Greg McNeil received heartbreaking news. His son, Sam, had overdosed on heroin after he could no longer afford OxyContin. He was dead at 28. 

Sam’s descent into drug addiction started in an emergency room. In an effort “to defend a young woman’s honor,” he’d gotten into a bad fight at a New Year’s Eve party and needed three screws inserted into his face, his father told The News Station. A doctor prescribed him pain pills for his injuries. Just three weeks later, he was hooked. Like many, he started out on Percocet and then moved to OxyContin from the street. By the time his family learned of his addiction, three years later, he had pivoted to heroin — a cheaper alternative. Half a decade later, he was gone.  

“I don’t know how you put a dollar figure on all the damage.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.)

Then, last month, Greg McNeil again found himself heartbroken when he learned of the Trump administration’s $8.3 billion settlement with Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family. The deal marked the end of the Department of Justice’s lengthy investigation into the drug-maker and was supposed to hold the family and drug-maker accountable for its role in the drug crisis. But as far as McNeil was concerned, Dr. Pharma had murdered his son with impunity. 

“It’s so wrong to those hundreds of thousands of families that no longer have their loved ones sitting around the table with them celebrating the holidays. It is a slap in the face — to all of us. And I just can’t imagine allowing that to happen, but that’s what’s happening,” an audibly angry McNeil told The News Station. 

After his son’s overdose, McNeil found renewed purpose in fighting his son’s killer: opioids. He intently studied the epidemic and then founded Cover2 Resources Inc. — a nonprofit that advocates for families with loved ones suffering from opioid addiction. But how do you help those families when their own government is cozy with the pharmaceutical firms that got their loved ones’ sick in the first place?

“With all of the good things that are happening out there to address the opioid epidemic, you’ve still got this old school — an old way of thinking that persists. That has to change. You’ve got culpability on a lot of different sides here,” McNeil says. 

Though Trump administration officials claim their deal with Purdue is the largest settlement with a pharmaceutical company in U.S. history, many Americans believe that Purdue — and the Sackler family, who survivors accuse of trading human lives for personal gain — are getting off with a mere slap on the wrist.

That’s because both the family and Purdue Pharma will realistically each only pay the federal government $225 million in civil penalties. In other words, the Sacklers will retain the vast majority of their Forbes estimated $11.2 billion fortune, while also escaping criminal charges. 

It’s not just survivors who are infuriated by the news; many lawmakers are concerned as well. While the settlement marks the end of the Department of Justice’s investigation, criminal charges can still be brought against the Sackler family or Purdue Pharma executives in the future. And as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) notes, the incoming Biden administration could even reassess the settlement. 

“The most glaring and striking failing of this settlement is that it really is completely inadequate compensation to the victims and survivors. This settlement fails to compensate the victims for the very grave harm that has been done to them,” Blumenthal told The News Station at the Capitol. “The next attorney general will have the opportunity to review this settlement and potentially assess additional penalties on both individuals and the company.”

As part of its settlement with the federal government, Purdue admitted it deceived the federal government to bolster sales of OxyContin. The company allegedly told the DEA it had created a program to prevent OxyContin from being sold on the black market — while surreptitiously marketing the drug to doctors suspected of illegally prescribing it. The pharmaceutical firm also acknowledged paying illegal kickbacks to doctors who prescribed their deadly blockbuster of a pill, OxyContin.

Americans are still bearing the brunt of the drug-makers’ actions. Even as most Americans are rightfully focused on the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid epidemic continues raging just off our screens. Over 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths. 

“This settlement fails to compensate the victims for

the very grave harm that has been done to them,”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)

For Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.), whose state consistently ranks amongst the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, the settlement strikes a personal chord. 

“I mean, literally, I just was talking to my sister about a family in town that’s now lost two sons to this,” Capito tells The News Station. “We’re really hard hit where we are, so the whole thing is sickening really.” 

That’s why Capito is more in line with Democrats, like Blumenthal, when it comes to the federal response to an epidemic that’s annually killing about as many people as America lost during the entire Vietnam War. 

“If at the end of the day your company admits that you lied about — and I’m probably broad brushing here — but you lied about the addictive quality of something that has destroyed lives, I think that there’s probably some culpability,” Capito says. “They were on the board. They knew this was going on, so that pretty much erases all the good works. $10 billion — if in fact that’s what it is — should come back into the settlements.” 

Still, Capito knows it’s ultimately not about the money. 

“I don’t know how you put a dollar figure on all the damage,” Capito says. “It’s just, it’s bottomless, and so I hope the settlement that they got, can make a difference. But it’ll only touch it, it won’t solve it.” 

Dylan Croll

Dylan Croll is a freelance writer based in California. In the past, he’s worked at the Laslo Congressional Bureau, as a CollegeFix Fellow at The Weekly Standard, Norwood News, and in public relations. He can be found on Twitter at @CrollonPatrol

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