Guest Column: How Creating ‘Dopesick’ Turned Me From Writer to Activist
The creator and director of Hulu’s Emmy-nominated limited series, explains how the show is helping to bring about a reckoning with Purdue Pharma and the "greatest crime in U.S. history."
“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible.” This quote from Richard Sackler, the man widely considered to be the “godfather” of OxyContin, perfectly exemplifies how his company, Purdue Pharma, got away with addicting millions of people through lies and deception — by blaming the victims for Purdue’s crimes.
As the creator of the Hulu limited series Dopesick, I was shocked and outraged by the obscene criminality of Purdue Pharma, which was owned and managed by members of the Sackler family. The company’s “big lie” was to aggressively market an addictive narcotic while significantly understating the risk of addiction by using misleading studies, manipulated blood charts and deceptive slogans and by pushing “expert” testimony regarding OxyContin’s safety from “independent” doctors who were in actuality on Purdue’s payroll.
These actions that created the opioid crisis might be the greatest crime in U.S. history, and even more enraging is that the individuals who made billions from the deception have never been charged! That’s a key talking point the Sacklers’ lawyers parrot over and over again.
Tired of their denials and enraged by the injustice of the tragedy, I decided to make a television series to be the “trial” the Sackler family never had. To my great surprise, this TV trial had a greater impact than I ever could have imagined.
A month after Dopesick finished airing, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art finally erased the Sackler name from its walls. This process had begun in 2018 when the righteous artist Nan Goldin led a series of groundbreaking protests at major museums all over the world that gained international press and helped bring the truth about the Sacklers’ actions to millions. Then after the British premiere of Dopesick, the Tate Modern in London removed the Sackler name, and London’s National Gallery quickly followed suit, with some British papers referring to the whole ordeal as the “Dopesick scandal.” Despite these cultural victories, the public remains furious that no member of the Sackler family has been indicted. This anger was shared by Congressman Tim Ryan, who in a fiery speech on the House floor displayed a Dopesick poster to passionately advocate for a reckoning for the Sackler family.
With the growing attention on the Sacklers from the series, anti-Purdue/Sackler activist Ed Bisch decided to seize the moment. Having lost his only son, 18-year-old Eddie, to an OxyContin-related overdose in 2001, Bisch organized a rally outside the Department of Justice to pressure officials to pursue criminal charges against the Sacklers. He asked me to speak at the rally and, for the first time on a project, I leaped from writer to activist. I wasn’t the only one to make this transition. Three former assistant U.S. attorneys also spoke, including former prosecutor Rick Mountcastle (who was portrayed by Peter Sarsgaard in Dopesick). Mountcastle’s investigation and case against Purdue was the central storyline of the series, and it was highly unusual, if not a first, for a former assistant U.S. attorney to join a protest outside the DOJ. The rally did not go unnoticed. Shortly thereafter, its organizers were offered a meeting with Philip Sellinger, the U.S. attorney whose New Jersey office is in charge of investigating Purdue.
I was invited to attend and found it to be one of the most moving moments of my career, listening to Sackler victims tell their tragic tales of losing loved ones to a government official who had the power to actually seek justice on their behalf. Journalist Beth Macy, the author of the incredible book that inspired the show, spoke in detail about her observations of Purdue’s opioid crisis — focusing on the fact that 1 million Americans have died of an overdose since Purdue launched its “wonder” drug.
I then explained to the U.S. attorney how the series had penetrated pop culture with millions of viewers, thus making the offenses too famous to ignore. I told him that a question I am now commonly asked is: “Why isn’t Richard Sackler in jail?” Then, Rick Mountcastle spoke. Everyone in the meeting was riveted as the former prosecutor explained to the current U.S. attorney how he felt his 2007 case was unjustly cut short because of the Sacklers’ “political connections,” and it was time for Mr. Sellinger to finish what Mountcastle had started 20 years earlier.
As of this writing, it is not known if the U.S. attorney will bring a case against Richard Sackler, but the issue refuses to go away. In June, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong asked the state’s top prosecutor to consider criminal charges against members of the Sackler family. Actions like this give many of their victims renewed hope after so many have lost so much as a result of the criminal callousness of Purdue Pharma. American life expectancies are declining in large part because of their greed. I am hopeful that thanks to the tireless work of activists and journalists and the light that we at Dopesick were able to shine on this scandal, the Justice Department will live up to its name and bring forth justice. It is past time for them to hammer the actual abusers.