Every Time I Thought the Purdue Pharma OxyContin Story Was Over, I Was Wrong
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When you cover a story for years, it is easy to think you know everything about it. Then you discover how much you didn’t know when last you reported on it.
In 2001, I started to look into Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, a company and a drug that have since become emblematic of the opioid epidemic. Back then, I had never heard of the powerful painkiller, of Purdue Pharma or of the company’s owner, the Sacklers, one of the wealthiest families in the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration had allowed Purdue Pharma to make a unique claim for OxyContin — that, as a long-acting opioid, it might be less likely to cause abuse and addiction than shorter-acting painkillers like Percocet. And starting in 1996, the drug maker began a massive marketing campaign for OxyContin based on that claim.
Both drug abusers and curious teenagers discovered, however, that simply crushing an OxyContin tablet released large dosages of a strong narcotic. Purdue Pharma disputed suggestions in articles I wrote that its marketing of OxyContin had any connection to its abuse.
In 2001, I went to Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn. The company’s chief executive, Michael Friedman, greeted me. He was wearing a sports jacket without a tie. A company employee who walked by seemed stunned. “Michael, what’s going on?” he asked. “I have never seen you before without a suit and tie.”
Mr. Friedman had dressed down, I realized, for me. (My own style runs toward the casual/elegant.) Then he and two other executives who were present, Howard Udell and Dr. Paul Goldenheim, told me they had learned of OxyContin’s growing abuse only in early 2000, a statement they also made before congressional committees.
I grew so fascinated by the episode that I wrote a book in 2003 titled “Pain Killer.” It was set in a tiny town in western Virginia overrun by OxyContin abuse and followed the efforts of a local doctor, Art Van Zee, and others to sound a national alarm about the drug’s toll.
At around the same time, I heard rumors that the Justice Department had begun investigating Purdue Pharma. But nothing happened and, as the years rolled by, I assumed the inquiry had run out of steam.
Then I was told in May 2007 that Purdue Pharma and the three executives I had interviewed were about to plead guilty to charges connected to the company’s deceptive marketing of OxyContin.
On the night before that plea deal was announced, I sat in a Mexican restaurant in Roanoke, Va., with the United States attorney there, John Brownlee, who had overseen the case. Purdue Pharma lawyers had asked him to wait until the executives had left a federal courthouse in rural Virginia and were on a corporate jet back to Connecticut before publicizing the news of their pleas.
Mr. Brownlee decided to make one exception: me. He said my work at The New York Times and in “Pain Killer” had helped inform his investigation. So the next day, as the executives walked toward the courthouse, a Times photographer and I were there to greet them.
Once again, I was certain the OxyContin story was over.
Ten years later, I discovered how much I did not know then.
Back in 2007, the Purdue Pharma executives had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges that held them liable solely as the company’s “responsible” corporate officers and did not accuse them of any personal wrongdoing. But a confidential 2006 Justice Department report I was given a little more than a year ago showed that Mr. Brownlee’s office had recommended that the men be charged with felonies that could have sent them to prison if convicted. Prosecutors had also concluded that Purdue Pharma, despite its claims to the contrary, had known about OxyContin’s abuse long before 2000 and had concealed the information.
The evidence prosecutors gathered at the time had never emerged because top Justice Department officials in the George W. Bush administration refused to back indicting the executives, who have continued to insist they did nothing wrong.
Now, with the report in hand, I finally had the chance to bring the story of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin full circle, both in The Times and in an expanded edition of “Pain Killer.”
As fate would have it, my name was also in that report. Prosecutors had found the tape recording of my 2001 interview with Mr. Friedman and his colleagues and planned to use it as one example of how they said the men publicly misrepresented the company’s knowledge of OxyContin’s early abuse.
Seventeen years later, I don’t remember precisely what they told me. But I do recall how Mr. Friedman dressed for the occasion.
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