Last month, New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed what was billed as the nation’s most extensive lawsuit against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids, citing the drug’s role in thousands of deaths across the country.
Prominent in this game-changing lawsuit is the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company behind Oxycontin, the powerful opioid involved in so many deaths on Long Island, across New York State and America.
In 2017, opioid deaths in Suffolk County totaled more than 400; there was no separate count for the five East End towns. We have asked the county health department to break out the death toll for Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island towns and have been turned down by officials, who say doing so would violate privacy laws.
But the Island has had its share of overdoses, with some residents brought back from death’s door though the use of Narcan. Police Chief Jim Read told this newspaper: “I’m not saying this is a massive problem for Shelter Island. But for those families, it is a massive problem. It tears up the lives of everybody around them.”
The estimated drug death toll nationwide in 2017 was 72,000. In one year. That’s something like 200 a day. An estimated 200,000 have died from prescription opioids across the country in the past 20 years.
First responders here speak of deaths as well as numerous overdoses in which victims were resuscitated with Narcan. Some first responders have — to use a new verb for our time — “Narcanned” the same person multiple times.
The state’s suit blames the Sackler family, along with drug distributors, “for creating the opioid epidemic that has ravaged New York, causing widespread addiction, overdose deaths and suffering.”
The attorney general’s legal complaint alleges widespread fraud by the Sacklers and a number of distributors who sent massive amounts of opioid painkillers to pharmacies even as the overdose death rate was skyrocketing.
You’d think someone working for a distribution company, making his rounds with a trunk full of medications, would wonder why one small-town pharmacy in, say, West Virginia, required tens of thousands of opioid pills. But that is the story we have come to know.
The language of the lawsuit, and its underlying message, is staggering: that Purdue Pharma and the distributors pushed millions of pills into the marketplace, regardless of the horrific consequences that were emerging across the country right before their eyes. They didn’t care. They had millions to make.
As a society, we put drug dealers behind bars for years, in some cases for relatively small quantities. The Sacklers and the distributors have taken their gains and now live in such exclusive places as Amagansett on the South Fork. In America, there are drug pushers who go to prison; others go to the bank.
The attorney general’s complaint details how the Sackler family shifted large sums of blood money from Purdue Pharma to out-of-reach offshore accounts to conceal their gains. What kind of society allows such behavior?
It really does seem like the game is rigged in favor of the extremely wealthy.
Or, as Woody Guthrie wrote:
“I’ve seen lots of funny men.
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.”