I Reckon: We shouldn’t have to clean up after the Sacklers

Design: Lizzy Brunn

If you’ve seen Hulu’s “Dopesick” — or the nonfiction book that inspired the miniseries about the origin and subsequent unraveling of the opioid crisis — you might remember that Virginia served as the central focus of the plotlines. Virginia was not randomly chosen as the setting for “Dopesick,” nor was it just one of many random states affected by the Sackler family’s lies and deceit. 

The Sacklers embodied a presence just as big as the coal mining companies did in the region and exploited low-income Black and Indigenous communities and communities of color that make up a significant portion of the population in the Appalachians and the southern U.S. The family owns Purdue Pharma, the group responsible for creating Oxycontin, one of the most commonly abused prescription drugs in the country, according to the Addiction Center. While a primary component of the problem, the Sacklers are not the sole people responsible for this disastrous situation. The opioid epidemic has latched onto the nation and Appalachia for as long as it has because of the inaction of elected officials and politicians. 

Virginia is but one state in what is known as the Appalachians, a region that stretches as far south as Mississippi and as high up as New York. This mountainous region paves the way for the Sacklers’ schemes to have a much harsher impact. According to a 2017 report from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Appalachian counties experienced an opioid overdose death rate 72% higher than in non-Appalachian counties. That situation was exacerbated by the onset of the coronavirus, which put an additional barrier on top of the already existing ones related to healthcare access, education, solid employment and transportation. 

You might know someone affected by the opioid crisis. The crisis has led to more than 500,000 deaths worldwide over a span of 20 years, tearing families apart or relegating others to seek costly long-term care. I hope, then, that you’ll agree with me when I argue that the recent plea deal to come out of the opioid lawsuits — in which the Sacklers agreed to pay at least $6 billion in cash in exchange for all current and future civil suits against them to end — is nowhere near fair or just. 

Connecticut’s Attorney General William Tong seems to agree, saying at a news conference, “No one is under any illusion this solves all the problems we’re facing … This settlement is both significant and insufficient — constrained by the inadequacies of our federal bankruptcy code.”

And it is tough to be angry at greedy pharmaceutical companies who don’t really have a care in the world for the lives they destroyed, knowing well that the system of laws we have in place rigorously protects these companies from reprimand. There’s no single way you could measure or quantify true justice in this situation. If you could, it would be a bill, even the billionaire Sacklers couldn’t pay.

But there’s hope. There’s hope in a rather unattractive area of policy and law that Tong mentioned prior: bankruptcy. NPR’s Brian Mann, who covers litigation against pharmaceutical companies, essentially calls bankruptcy an opportunity, not an outright defeat, for the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. Mann essentially said that declaring bankruptcy allows the Sacklers to throw disposable money, such as a company and assets (but by no means all of their money) to clean up after the sinking ship that is Purdue Pharma. In exchange for that, the Sacklers get a trade-off of being able to rinse their hands and hide behind a shield of immunity from future lawsuits. The use of bankruptcy as what is, at its core, a get-out-of-jail-free card, is not a phenomenon unique to this scenario. Many companies such as Hertz Global Holdings Inc. have used this to their advantage.

Through the layman’s eyes, this is evidence of the fact that if you’re rich enough, you can get away with just about anything.

Congress, as ineffective as it is, has the ability to hopefully expand the reach that justice can have when it comes to reprimanding companies like Purdue Pharma. In August 2021, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Nondebtor Release Prohibition Act, which they say would make sure that those participating in unlawful acts can’t escape liability by opting for bankruptcy. 

Opioid deaths and addiction don’t discriminate between political party affiliations, which is all the more reason for both sides of the aisle to come together to fix our bankruptcy laws to guarantee what the Sacklers started doing almost two decades ago won’t happen again. 

Quynh Anh Nguyen is a sophomore writing about the implications of current Southern political events. Her column, “I Reckon,” runs every other Tuesday.