What started as an obscure legal fight in eastern Kentucky more than three years ago has reached a pop culture pinnacle: a mention on HBO’s Sunday night lineup.

On Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the host did one of his trademark deep dives into the opioid addiction crisis, spotlighting the alleged role that drug distributors and manufacturers had in starting the conflagration. The segment focused partly on a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a member of the billionaire family that controls OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and a onetime Purdue president. The deposition about Purdue’s marketing of the painkiller was filed under seal in a Kentucky courthouse, and STAT filed a motion in 2016 to have it made public.

“It’s a story of how major companies acted wildly irresponsibly, skirted any meaningful consequences, and for the most part, avoided public scrutiny,” Oliver said in his introduction.

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As Oliver noted, a transcript of the 2015 deposition was obtained by STAT and ProPublica in February, revealing that Sackler had embraced a Purdue plan to conceal OxyContin’s strength from doctors.

Oliver said the release of the deposition marked a rare chance for the public to read how a member of the Sackler family discussed the company’s work and the addiction crisis. The Sacklers, who have donated millions to medical centers, museums, and cultural institutions, have said little publicly about Purdue and its medications, the main source of their wealth.

Because video of the deposition has not been made public, Oliver’s show also got four actors — Michael Keaton, Bryan Cranston, Michael K. Williams, and Richard Kind — to portray Sackler and read portions of it. The show also launched a website that features the clips and court documents.

Oliver’s focus on the Sackler family reflects the increasing scrutiny on the family for their alleged role in the opioid crisis. Some 2,000 lawsuits have been filed against opioid manufacturers, distributors, and others in recent years by states, cities, counties, and tribes, but more recently, some of them have named members of the Sackler family as defendants as well. A number of institutions that have received donations from the family have recently said they will no longer accept such gifts.

“Richard Sackler’s deposition should not be something that Purdue gets to bury, like it’s buried so many other things over the years,” Oliver said.

Purdue and the Sackler family have denied the allegations in the lawsuits.

The publication of the deposition, which was taken as part of a lawsuit brought by the state of Kentucky against Purdue, stems from March 2016, when STAT originally asked a Kentucky judge to unseal it. When the Kentucky lawsuit was settled, the deposition, as well as a trove of other documents about the marketing of OxyContin, was sealed.

The judge ordered the documents to be released publicly in May 2016, and after Purdue appealed the ruling, a three-member appellate panel upheld the ruling in December 2018. Purdue has asked the state Supreme Court in Kentucky to review the case, meaning the documents — including a video of the deposition — remain under seal as the court decides whether or not to hear an appeal.

Oliver’s segment started with a focus on drug distributors, which have faced criticism for flooding communities with opioid painkillers without oversight.

In addition to the reporting from STAT and ProPublica, the segment highlighted work done by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.

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  • As despicable as that family is and the lengths they went to in order to conceal their intent, I believe that all mind-altering drugs should not only decriminalized, but legalized. Tax them appropriately and let the portion of the population that wants to burn out on meth or whatever do so. Better than hitting me over the head for $20 to get their next fix. Drain the gene pool. Make driving under the influence of anything punished by a year in jail or working for a WPA like project. Set up addiction centers for those who want to get off it or heck stay on it. The taxes will pay for it. People are going to get what they think they need and rob and kill to do so.

  • One of the biggest problems now are all the patients with chronic who handle the drug responsibly. Will they be asked to take an Advil? I have seen many people take the correct dosage for 10+ years and their back pain at a functionable level. More so than abuse the drug. Fetynol, Meth, Coccaine, Heroin. The use of these will rise. At least opioids are a known and graded drug. A certain segment of our population will kill themselves. If you take away the drugs they will eat mushrooms. Take those away and there are bath salts. Designer drugs will become increasingly potent and prevalent. There are better things to worry about…. You can’t fix the broken units. Put them in voluntary internment camps, give them the drugs they require, let them out when clean 180 days. Old military bases. No street drugs, no dealers, 75% reduction in theft and crime, a chance to keep children free and clear. Let’s fix water, hunger, education, sexual abuse and incest, and leave the addicts to their own choices. Many get off dope and drink themselves to death. It’s a cold world out here, and people are concerned with crap they can do NOTHING about! Politics, foreign policy, infrastructure, etc. 400,000,000 people, and you think your yelling at the top of your lungs would change a thing? Enjoy the life you have. Make your world better. Clean the garage. Scrub the bathrooms, the kitchens, the inside of the car, smile and be pleasant to your family, and get off the Internet! 😬

    • Why do you conflate narcotics and amphetamines with mushrooms? This is a clear indication of your ignorance. As a matter of fact, mushrooms have been employed successfully in combating addiction to other substances. Did you know that a pilot program at Johns Hopkins used them with patients terminally diagnosed with cancer in order to help them cope with the end of their lives? The program was highly successful at easing participants’ emotional suffering.
      Secondly, you state in so many words that we should just let addicts kill themselves and get off Big Pharma’s case. If OxyContin had been marketed in good faith for only those with acute and very specific conditions, the sales would have been a fraction of what Purdue achieved. Purdue was motivated by greed pure and simple. They falsely claimed that their product was less addictive than other painkillers. They encouraged doctors to prescribe more and at higher strengths. And they damn well knew that their product was being prescribed illegally to the tune of hundreds of thousands of units a year. They knew people would die. But as you seem to believe, they were just “criminals”. Surely Purdue is not to blame for aggressively pushing a product that is addictive even as prescribed.

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