Record Numbers of Americans Are Dying of Overdoses. Instead of Justice, We Get Theater | Opinion

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City announced this week that it would be removing the Sackler's nameplate off of their arts center in response to pressure from activists. "The Guggenheim and the Mortimer D. Sackler family have agreed to rename the arts education center," a museum spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday. The Guggenheim was not alone; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also removed the Sackler name from a gallery, as did the National Gallery in London this week.

The Guggenheim's effort is timely, coming on the heels of another devastating statistic: Nearly 108,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2021. And yet, the sad truth is, embarrassing members of the Sackler family will not bring justice to the victims of the opioid crisis and their families, who are once again being offered busy work as though it were meaningful reform. Scrubbing the Sacklers' name from museums, like suing them in court, amounts to little more than kabuki theater—and everyone but the victims knows it.

Real justice could not be more urgent. America remains mired in a protracted drug-overdose crisis, with over half a million people dead in just a decade. The crisis is being fed by the ubiquity of dangerous fentanyl in the black market. Despite illegal drugs being the culprit in almost every case, the focus of the media and politicians has been on punishing pharmaceutical companies, in particular, members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, for which a major case of civil litigation is ongoing.

But the calls for justice for the victims of opioid addiction rarely rise above the symbolic, things like the Guggenheim or the Metropolitan Museum of Art removing the Sackler name from their nameplates. And this is a far cry from meaningful consequences that would help the victims of the opioid crisis.

Despite what you have been told in major publications like The New York Times and the Washington Post, the fight against the Sacklers in court is no more meaningful. Just last month, the media cheered as Sacklers were forced to listen to hours of testimony from angry and crying victims and their families during courtroom proceedings. The New York Times in particular gushed, describing this moment as "the first time, after years of lawsuits, that the family that owns Purdue Pharma heard directly from families who had lost loved ones to addiction."

But the lawsuit is a far cry from what real justice would look like. "The whole thing is kabuki theater," says Richard Ausness, a legal scholar and renowned opioid litigation expert from the University of Kentucky Law. He told me that while there is a high emotional charge to these proceedings, the actual bearing on the case is minimal. "It ought to be about money," Dr. Ausness explained. "About who pays what. And instead, they want to make the Sacklers listen to people complain about them."

It may surprise you to learn that instead of trying to bring the Sacklers to justice, the Department of Justice has done anything but. On multiple occasions, the family agreed to multi-billion-dollar settlements, like a widely-criticized bankruptcy agreement from September of 2021 which mandated that the Sacklers would forfeit Purdue ownership and shell out $4.3 billion to litigants. But it granted the Sacklers sweeping immunity from opioid lawsuits brought against their company Purdue Pharma and its drug OxyContin. The plan was killed last December by U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon, after the DOJ publicly announced they didn't like how the Sacklers would be immune to further shakedowns lawsuits.

WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK - AUGUST 9: Friends and family members of people who have died during the opioid epidemic protest against a bankruptcy deal with Purdue Pharmaceuticals that allows the Sackler family to avoid criminal prosecution and to keep billions of dollars in private wealth, on August 9, 2021 outside the Federal courthouse in White Plains, New York. For decades the Sackler family, which owned Purdue, knowingly marketed highly addictive painkillers, including Oxycontin. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

So this March, the Sacklers made a new deal, with compensation coming to $6 billion—and immunity from further litigation. Once again, the DOJ pushed to have it overturned, though U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain stood firm and overruled. (DOJ is still pushing for an appeal in the federal appeals court.)

Professor Ausness and others I spoke to believe the case will end up at the Supreme Court, and it's anyone's guess what happens then. But as it currently stands, the victims will never see a single cent from civil litigation. Unless specified otherwise by state law, litigation settlement funds are at the discretion of state attorneys general, who have historically allocated the vast majority of opioid litigation money to feed state budgets. What little funds go toward "anti-addiction" projects have been spent on ridiculous efforts that have very little do with addiction, like Michigan's focus on helping new mothers or West Virginia's emphasis on public education.

The media and prosecutors should have been honest with victims from the start and admitted that putting the Sacklers in jail was never an option. Remember, in the 1990s and 2000s, the hard push for prescribing opioids was at the behest of the federal government. These companies' advertising strategies weren't drastically different from those for any other drug. While Big Pharma's behavior was unethical, that is not the same as it being illegal.

Meanwhile, Americans are still overdosing on illegal drugs in the hundreds of thousands.

Where are the calls for justice for them?

Prosecutors and these shameless big litigation firms should have told families the best they could hope for is to hurt the Sacklers in the place that counts: their wallets. And rather than holding out years for criminal charges and a larger perpetual payday that will never arrive, victims should insist the Sacklers pay restitution immediately.

That should also be the focus now. Accept the $6 billion. Money, of course, will never be enough to heal victims' pain, but that's the best option on offer. It's certainly better than removing a placard off of a museum wall.

There is no easy way to put this: The victims of the opioid crisis are being lied to. And it's prolonging the crisis and any possible justice or solution.

Peter Pischke is an independent journalist, covering health and disability issues, also politics, tech and more. A lifetime nerd and member of the disability community, Pete is also the host of the Happy Warrior Podcast and Substack.

The views in this article are the writer's own.