51 minutes | May 20, 2021

The Sackler Empire

The opioid epidemic, still rampant, still deadly, turns out to be a family story at its root. Empire of Pain is Patrick Radden Keefe’s account of the drug company that touched off an American plague and the family that owned it. The Sacklers were famous for collecting art and giving away money—less famous for the source of their fortune. But they had taken something like $13 billion in profits on OxyContin and other addictive pills that killed a whole lot of pain and a whole lot of people over two decades. Their company, Purdue, is bankrupt by now. The Sackler name has been disgraced. Questions of responsibility and justice abound. Arthur Sackler with items from his art collection. What we learned too late about the opioid crisis (still worsening) is that it was not an accident and probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. It was the poisoned fruit of a vision that built an empire of pain. Our guest Patrick Radden Keefe wrote the book that tracked the vision to a family-owned drug company, and to its founder. Arthur Sackler’s vision had many dark layers: he knew, to start with, the hurricane force of hunger for narcotic drugs. He knew that in a rich country and a deregulated marketplace, people would spend without limit on what they had to have; he knew the added value of a doctor’s prescription on bogus medicine; and he knew that Sackler money could make watchdogs and other obstacles go away, with payoffs as needed. Over 30 or 40 years, Arthur Sackler and his family sold a doctrine of pain, an idea of pain as something to be managed with a lethal drip line, legal or not.
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