2021, Books, Non-Fiction

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (2021) by Patrick Radden Keefe

This is a well-written but maddening and saddening biography of the Sackler family, who are best known as the owners of Purdue Pharma and Purdue Frederick, i.e. the OxyContin people. It’s not really the story of OxyContin or the opioid epidemic, but rather just the history of the family. It’s a revealing story about how the road to hell is paved with good intentions and how the rich try to use philanthropy to buy a legacy.

The book is divided into three parts, about the origins of the family’s wealth through their many different ventures (including helping to make valium successful), the creation of OxyContin and the explosion of the family’s wealth, and their pseudo reckoning. (The number of jobs Arthur Sackler had seems impossible. This was one very ambitious man.) As with Say Nothing, Radden Keefe does an excellent job of both telling the story and documenting the story. Between these two books he has to be one of the best narrative non-fiction writers working today.

Full disclosure: in my libertarian days I advocated for the complete legalization of drugs. I have softened on that position somewhat. I’m still for the decriminalization of drugs, and I think we should legalize any drugs that are not clearly addictive (or not worse than alcohol). But, the older I get, and the worse some synthetic drugs get, the more I think some drugs should be illegal. Opioids are too addictive and dangerous. Synthetic opioids are worse. (To be clear, I am for decriminalization of use and possession as I think there is ample evidence that trying to eliminate the demand side of the drug trade through prison will never work.)

This family may have started with some noble goals. But Radden Keefe is not wrong to suggest that the patriarch’s pioneering of pharmaceutical advertising techniques helped paved the way for his descendants’ success legally-authorized drug dealers. Make no mistake, many, many people and institutions here are complicit, but the family seems to have been at the centre of the opioid epidemic. Radden Keefe’s case is strong.

In the US, if you kill a couple of people, you may be sentenced to comically severe prison sentences you cannot fulfill – it’s not uncommon to receive multiple life sentences if you’re found guilty of multiple murders. But, if you own a company that creates and (deceptively) markets a product that kills thousands of people, ruins the lives of hundreds of thousands of others and, additionally, helps ruin the economy, you get to pay a fine. That justice was purchased in part due to decades of philanthropy, through connections through elite schools and networking, and through the too-close connection between the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry (i.e. corruption). But it was also purchased in a country that views the act of one person killing another as a heinous crime but the act of making something that kills many people as being good for the economy. (Well, until enough people complain about it.)

That’s the thing that’s hardest to take about all of this. Though Radden Keefe published this book before the final bankruptcy court settlement, if you followed the story this summer you know what happened. Fortunately for the book, Radden Keefe doesn’t promise any happy endings.

Well worth your time

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