Prosecutor admits he didn’t want to take OxyContin off the market.
A large part of the reason the opioid crisis was allowed to get as bad as it did was due to a decision made in 2006, when the Department of Justice (DOJ) decided to give Purdue Pharma merely a slap on the wrist rather than pursuing prosecuting the company. Prosecutors at the US Department of Justice drafted a memo following a four-year investigation into Purdue’s business practices and reviewing millions of internal documents detailing how the drug company and its executives engaged in mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy in pushing opioids. They recommended indictment.
However, shortly after the document circulated, it seemed to simply go away. Purdue was not charged with the felonies it identified, and thus, for the next decade and a half, the manufacturer continued to push its opioid painkiller, OxyContin. It appeared money and political connections had steered the DOJ away from prosecuting as recommended.
Purdue executives retained high-powered attorneys to influence the DOJ’s decision, including a former federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, who negotiated lesser penalties for a crime of “misbranding” its product. Giuliani still has special access to top DOJ officials and the ability to influence the department’s criminal investigations.
U.S. attorney John Brownlee led the initial investigation and has defended the compromise made with Giuliani years ago but has also expressed surprise that Purdue did not face stronger action from federal regulators. Brownlee launched his probe after being appointed U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia amid a sharp increase in opioid overdoses and deaths. He was able to pinpoint the source as Purdue’s OxyContin and had originally determined prosecuting the company was the best route.
The investigation discovered that after the drug’s launch Purdue communicated to physicians it was more effective at relieving pain and it was less likely to cause addiction and resistant to abuse. Demand for the painkiller grew, and soon many were hooked on the drug. It became the go-to for an instant high by snorting or injecting.
“This was the magic pill, right? This was a long-acting pill that the addicts wouldn’t like, and you couldn’t get dependent on, and that is the magic bullet. The reality is it just wasn’t true,” said Brownlee. “It was highly deceptive and then they trained their sales force to go out and to push that deception on physicians…This was pushed by the company to be marketed in an illegal way, pushed from the highest levels of the company, that in my view made them a criminal enterprise that needed to be dealt with.”
The Purdue defense team complained to deputy attorney general, James Comey that Brownlee was “exceeding his legal authority in pursuit of documents from the company.”
“The defense lawyers contacted Mr. Comey unbeknownst to us and said those guys down there are crazy,” Brownlee remembered. The Purdue name, at the time, was not as readily recognizable and was commonly mistaken for Perdue Farms, a regional chicken producer. Brownlee said the deputy attorney general was easily misguided, recalling, “Mr. Comey said, why are you prosecuting the chicken guy?”
Yet, in the end, the prosecutor admitted he did not want to be responsible for taking OxyContin off the market. “I didn’t feel as a lawyer I could be in a position to bar anyone from getting OxyContin. Faced with that decision, I was just simply not prepared to take it off the market. I didn’t feel like that was my role. My role was to address prior criminal conduct. Hold them accountable. Fine them. Make sure the public knew what they did,” he said.
In hindsight, had Purdue received a harsher punishment at the time, many lives could have been spared.