Inside the Legal Thicket Ensnaring Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers

The Purdue Pharma and Sackler legal history can be difficult to follow but we have you covered with this explainer.

Tufts employee Gabe Ryan removes letters from signage featuring the Sackler family name. David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

December 2021 has been an eventful month in the saga of the Sacklers, longtime arts philanthropists and the family behind the Purdue Pharma OxyContin empire that’s currently experiencing a reckoning in the art world and beyond. On December 9, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that the Sackler name would be removed from seven of its exhibition spaces, representing a partial culmination of the activist efforts lead by Nan Goldin and her organization Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN). On the 17, a judge rejected a proposed Purdue Pharma settlement of the thousands of lawsuits filed against the company on the grounds that the proposed deal would have protected members of the Sackler family from personally being hit with civil lawsuits.

The drawn-out legal proceedings surrounding the Sacklers and their connection to the opioid crisis are thorny and complicated, but they also, when parsed through, reveal on deep level how difficult the justice system makes it to hold the rich and powerful personally accountable. In this particular case, part of the difficulty in comprehending the enormity of the Purdue Pharma and Sackler legal proceedings is due to the fact that thousands of lawsuits have been leveled against the company and the family.

Purdue Pharma first began drawing the attention of skeptical regulators in 2001, and subsequently discarded their inaugural marketing claims for OxyContin; originally, Purdue had disseminated that the drug was far less addictive than it actually was.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma and three executives from the company — president Michael Friedman, former medical director Dr. Paul D. Goldenheim and head lawyer Howard R. Udell — pled guilty to federal charges of misbranding, a crime that involves fraudulently promoting a drug for an unapproved use or misidentifying the drug itself.

The company agreed to a $600 million payout; $470 million went to state and federal agencies while the remaining $130 million went towards the settlement of civil litigation lawsuits. This legal episode, you’ll notice, implicates Purdue Pharma and its employees but none of the Sacklers themselves.

Photographer Nan Goldin, a recovering opioid addict herself, founded PAIN in 2018 in an attempt to push arts institutions to remove the Sackler name from their institutions and distance themselves from the family. Goldin’s staged vivid die-ins and protests at several museums were successful in their attempts to capture the attention of the press and the public.

In 2019, an un-redacted lawsuit revealed that between 2008 and 2018, the Sacklers had paid themselves over $4 billion in opioid profits. During this period, the lawsuit divulged that Purdue Pharma LLC had also considered implementing a plan called “Project Tango,” which was originally pitched to the company’s board in 2014 by board member Kathe Sackler. “Project Tango” proposed that the company could potentially sell both opioids and drugs prescribed to ease opioid addiction.

“The Tango team mapped how patients could get addicted to opioids through prescription opioid analgesics such as Purdue’s OxyContin or heroin, and then become consumers of the new company’s suboxone,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey wrote in her brief.

“In 1997, Richard Sackler, Kathe Sackler, and other Purdue executives determined – and recorded in secret internal correspondence – that doctors had the crucial misconception that OxyContin was weaker than morphine, which led them to prescribe OxyContin much more often, even as a substitute for Tylenol,” the same lawsuit continued.

Despite these revelations, in September of 2021, the Sackler family temporarily won immunity from the thousands of lawsuits leveled against themselves and the company when a judge ruled the family members could be granted bankruptcy protection as part of a settlement. As part of the agreement, the Sacklers would have forked over $4.5 billion in personal wealth towards opioid addiction treatment programs while also being afforded “global peace” from liability.

However, as we know, U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon rejected the terms of that settlement in December, determining that bankruptcy protections could not be afforded to a group who were not themselves declaring bankruptcy. Bankruptcy, generally, has the power to eliminate debts and halt evictions; what it doesn’t have the power to do, it seems, is allow the Sacklers to disentangle themselves free and clear.

While it’s unclear what’s next for the Sacklers, Nan Goldin and PAIN are looking towards the future with hope. “The Sacklers held creditors hostage, stating in no uncertain terms that if these releases weren’t granted, they would refuse to pay into the settlement,” Goldin and PAIN wrote in a statement emailed to Observer. “Their contribution of $4.5 billion may sound like a lot, but it’s nothing compared to the fortune the family made off OxyContin and the billions they siphoned out of Purdue Pharma, leaving it bankrupt. With this ruling overturned, it looks as though the people might finally have their day in court.” Inside the Legal Thicket Ensnaring Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers