A confidential 2006 Department of Justice (DOJ) report recommended three Purdue Pharma executives face felony charges over their concealment and denial of the abuse potential of their now infamous opioid drug, OxyContin, according to a Tuesday New York Times report.
OxyContin, a formulation of the powerful semi-synthetic opioid painkiller oxycodone, is perhaps the prescription pill most closely associated with America’s opioid epidemic. Fueled by decades of widespread pain prescription and intensified by cheap heroin and ever-more-dangerous illegal imported synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the drug crisis is killing Americans on a demographically significant scale — more than traffic deaths and firearm murders combined. Prescription opioids alone led to more than 17,000 overdose deaths in 2016.
Predating the public acknowledgement of the epidemic, there was an intense marketing push for drugs like OxyContin in the 1990s. In 2007, Purdue reached a settlement with the Justice Department over this marketing and the attendant denial of OxyContin’s abuse potential. The company had to pay more than $600 million, and three executives pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal charges, performed community service, and paid millions in personal fines.
The New York Times, however, obtained a confidential DOJ report prepared by the federal prosecutors who first worked the case, showing much more serious wrongdoing on the part of Purdue and the three executives — President Michael Friedman, General Counsel Howard Udell, and Medical Director Dr. Paul Goldenheim — than had ever been disclosed before.
In the 120 page report, those federal prosecutors — from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the heavily-affected Western District of Virginia — recommended the executives be brought up on serious felonies, including conspiracy charges. They based this determination on their findings that internal company documents and emails indicated they knew addicts were stealing OxyContin from pharmacies, crushing and snorting pills, and paying crooked doctors for prescriptions almost immediately after the drug hit the market in 1996. At the same time, the company was aggressively marketing the drug as an alternative that was less attractive to drug abusers.
The executives, meanwhile, testified before Congress in 2001 that they were unaware of OxyContin’s (and its cousin MS Contin’s) abuse potential until 2000.
Eventually, DOJ officials in Washington, under the authority of then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, opted not to pursue more serious charges against the men after meeting with them. The New York Times cites a former Drug Enforcement Administration official, Joseph Rannazzisi, claiming the U.S. Attorney in Western Virginia, John Brownlee, was “outgunned” in the decision to settle for misdemeanors, although Brownlee testified that he was “satisfied.”
Purdue, now under different leadership, is by no means out of the legal woods over its opioid marketing. Texas and five other states are pursuing lawsuits against Purdue and other opioid manufacturers over their policies and their relation to the opioid epidemic.
Some commentators, like Conservative Review’s Daniel Horowitz and Breitbart News’s John Hayward, have questioned the wisdom of this aggressive stance, calling the drug companies a “scapegoat” for the nation’s overdose woes and pointing to the availability of cheap street drugs as more pressing.
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