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The OXY CARTEL: After profiting from human misery, Sacklers prepare to cut a check, walk away

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
Pills spilling from bottle

After playing a role in the opioid overdose deaths of more than 400,000 Americans, Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family is about to pay the price.

Not with long prison sentences like other drug cartel kingpins, to which history will surely compare them, but with a big check — despite promoting a big lie that the prescription opioid that made them billions wasn’t addictive. It was quite a marketing coup while it lasted.

A New York bankruptcy judge this past week indicated he would permit Purdue Pharma to reinvent itself as a nonprofit company as part of a reorganization plan that will settle approximately 3,000 lawsuits involving more than 600,000 claimants. For their part, the Sacklers will agree to pay $4.5 billion toward the settlement over a decade. The money, which includes a $225 million check to the federal government, will be disbursed to states and cities through a national opioid abatement trust fund and support drug treatment and addiction education programs.

The proposed agreement accompanies the news that 15 more states, including Nevada, have indicated a willingness to drop their objections and sign off on the settlement. A final confirmation hearing on the plan is scheduled for Aug. 9.

Of its contribution to the settlement the Oxy cartel stated, “The Sackler family hopes these funds will help achieve that goal.”

That’s designed to bring comfort to the families devastated by prescription opioid abuse and all its related maladies.

For those keeping score, once the agreement is completed the Sacklers will no longer hold an interest in Purdue Pharma but will walk away forever free of any future litigation without acknowledging any wrongdoing. Purdue Pharma would be allowed to continue to sell OxyContin through its status as a public trust corporation. There’s something else that’s worth noting: Sackler family members are collectively worth $11 billion, according to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Just a few weeks ago, that revelation figured to give some people pause.

“Members of the Sackler family pushed Purdue to use deceptive marketing practices to flood communities with this dangerous painkiller, and now the Sackler family is attempting to use Purdue’s bankruptcy proceedings to evade individual responsibility for their role in fueling the opioid epidemic,” the chairwoman of the oversight committee, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, said in April at the release of the breakdown of the Oxy Cartel’s assets.

While 15 more states are settling up instead of taking their chances in court, a few are staying in the game. In Connecticut, a state that continues to hold out, Attorney General William Tong has jabbed his finger at the U.S. Department of Justice and remains cynical about the settlement, telling The Hartford Courant, “The fact that they don’t have to sell anything or really be accountable in any way and they’ve put a few billion on the table? That tells me that they don’t want to acknowledge any wrongdoing.”

News travels slowly in the bowels of the Administrative Maximum US Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, better known as Supermax, but imagine what imprisoned Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera will think when he is once again reminded of the wonders of the American justice system.

Cutting a check and walking away after being associated with nearly 500,000 dead? The Oxy cartel is making El Chapo look like a chump.

As Guzman finds himself predisposed these days, I contacted retired former Drug Enforcement Administration Chief of International Operations Mike Vigil about the irony. Vigil, whose legendary career stretched over three decades in all parts of the globe, laughed cynically at the double standard.

“These guys started the opioid epidemic, and the American justice system allows these guys to pay a fine, which is usually pennies to the dollar on the profits that they make,” he says. “And nobody goes to jail. Chapo Guzman was a drug trafficker, without question, who killed a lot of people, without question. Quite frankly, the pharmaceutical companies have killed more people than he has. He’s serving a life sentence at the Supermax. With these pharmaceutical company executives, there’s not even a threat of them going to jail.”

Beyond the audacity of the settlement, there’s the fire that’s still burning when it comes to opioid overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prescription opioid and heroin-related fatalities are now eclipsed by the staggering overdose death rates associated with the synthetic opioid fentanyl throughout the country.

“The opioid problem was fueled by pharmaceutical companies, principally by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, with OxyContin,” Vigil says. “And then a few years after that, we saw a significant increase in the use of heroin. Once these people got addicted to pharmaceutical drugs, then the normal progression was going into heroin, which was cheaper than the pharmaceutical drugs.

“And fentanyl is cheaper to manufacture, far more powerful, and more deadly.”

This is the real price we pay while the Sacklers and other Big Pharma royalty receive good old American checkbook justice.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal— “Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at He is also the author of a new book, "Saints, Sinners, and Sovereign Citizens: The Endless War Over the West’s Public Lands." On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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