Last month, I got an email from a dear old friend from Kentucky with devastating news. Her daughter Kathryn had died of an opioid overdose. I was stunned, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I knew she had long struggled with addiction: A talented artist and writer, she was prescribed an opioid for wrist pain at 19, and that’s all it took. Eventually, she began using heroin, and now she had overdosed on fentanyl. It’s the same tragic path tens of thousands of other young Americans have traveled.
Kathryn’s mother had a request for me. Could I help her find addresses for members of the Sackler family, who founded and still control the opioid maker Purdue Pharma. She wanted to write to them, as well as executives of Purdue and other companies that sold and distributed opioids, “so they could see what the destruction they created looks like, what a person who was destroyed looked like and how much she mattered.”
I thought of Kathryn and her mother after I learned Monday that the Kentucky Supreme Court denied Purdue’s last-gasp effort to halt the release of sealed company documents that may contain new revelations about its marketing of the prescription opioid OxyContin. It was excessive prescribing of that potent painkiller, by doctors unaware of just how addictive it was, that kickstarted the opioid epidemic two decades ago.
And I thought of how much has changed since that day in early 2016 when STAT reporter David Armstrong approached me, his editor, with an idea. He had heard about a stash of internal Purdue documents under seal in a remote Kentucky courthouse, and he proposed we file a motion to unseal them.
At the time, Purdue still brought to mind a university in Indiana — not a colossus among pain pill makers. Museums, aware of the family’s munificence, were eager to slap the Sacklers’ name on their galleries. And though nearly 100 people a day were dying of opioid overdoses, the epidemic wasn’t yet making daily headlines across America.
It was just three and a half years ago, but it seems an eternity: Most Americans had little understanding of Purdue’s and the secretive Sacklers’ role in the genesis of the opioid crisis.
The Kentucky trove, Dave told me, purportedly contained details about Purdue’s aggressive, and allegedly illegal, marketing of OxyContin, which had made the company billions of dollars since its launch in 1996. Most enticingly, Dave had been told that within those files was the only sworn deposition ever taken of a member of the Sackler family. No Sacklers had ever been required to publicly account for their company’s actions to downplay the addictive nature of OxyContin.
I had seen firsthand the damage OxyContin had done to Kentucky. As a reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal, I’d written about the early days of the opioid epidemic. In the early 2000s, I’d interviewed family members of young men who had overdosed on a cocktail of pills including OxyContin. I’d written about a pill mill in northeastern Kentucky where the parking lot would fill up with cars from as far away as Florida. Customers paid $80 to $100 in cash to see a doctor who would hand them an OxyContin prescription after being shown an X-ray printed from the internet. Patients would walk outside and hand the scan to the next person in line.
So I immediately saw the importance of the Purdue records. I also happened to know the best media lawyer in Kentucky from my days at the C-J. I called Jon Fleischaker in Louisville and told him what we had in mind. He was excited to take on the case, but he cautioned that it would be a long shot. Our chances of winning would be much less than 50-50.
Jon also said the case could be costly. STAT was a startup, then just a few months old, and Purdue had endless cash at its disposal. Even if we won at the trial court, the company would be sure to appeal all the way up to the state Supreme Court and drag out the litigation as long as possible.
I thought it was worth the fight, but it wasn’t my money. We had to ask John W. Henry, our owner and publisher. I was fairly confident he would give us the go-ahead, but I wasn’t sure. After all, he was relatively new to the journalism game — he knew way more about owning sports teams and running a hedge fund.
Rick Berke, our executive editor, and I outlined what we hoped to do. We told John that taking on Purdue would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and that our lawyers warned us we would probably lose.
He did not hesitate: That’s why I started STAT, he said emphatically, to pursue just this kind of case so the public would learn the truth.
We filed the motion in March 2016, and I was shocked two months later when a local judge in Pike County — a place hard-hit by fatal opioid overdoses — ruled in our favor. “The court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves,” Circuit Court Judge Steven Combs wrote.
As expected, Purdue appealed. Months went by, then years. Every Friday at 10 a.m., when the Kentucky Court of Appeals announces the week’s opinions, I religiously checked its website. All the while, states, tribes, and local governments were filing some 2,000 lawsuits against Purdue and, in many cases, the Sacklers and other drug makers and distributors. That only heightened interest in the release of the sealed records.
Purdue countered with a PR offensive, portraying the company as a responsible corporate citizen. Newspaper ads highlighted its efforts to combat what it called “the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis” — phrasing that blames the crisis on the people taking opioids rather than the addictive drugs themselves.
The appellate ruling — affirming Combs’ decision — finally came last December, almost three years after Dave first raised his idea. Purdue, not surprisingly, asked the state Supreme Court to let it appeal. That’s what the justices decided against last week, meaning the records can now be made public.
Meanwhile, the case became personal for me. I may not be able to find the Sacklers’ addresses for Kathryn’s mom. But now I am hopeful that we will come closer to finally finding — for her and everyone else touched by this crisis — the whole truth about the way Purdue and the Sacklers promoted the sale of OxyContin.
Gideon Gil is a managing editor of STAT and oversaw the legal fight with Purdue and coverage of the opioid crisis.