Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Placing blame for the opioid crisis

Compassion | Massachusetts goes after the owners of a pharmaceutical company
by Charissa Koh
Posted 1/23/19, 05:57 pm

Last week a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts against the makers of the painkiller OxyContin threw an unwanted spotlight on the company’s owners, who belong to one of the richest families in the United States. Purdue Pharma has already paid tens of millions in settlements to state and federal governments for deceptive business practices that put patients at risk, but the state of Massachusetts is the first to try to hold the company’s owners, the Sackler family, personally accountable in court.

Purdue Pharma started selling OxyContin in 1996 as the first time-released narcotic. Each pill contained higher amounts of the painkiller that released more slowly into the body. The company said OxyContin was less likely to cause dependence because patients would need fewer doses. But it also provided a more intense high when abused.

As deaths from OxyContin misuse soared, the Sacklers showed little concern, according to new documents filed Jan. 15 in the Massachusetts suit. The documents allege that members of the Sackler family directed the aggressive and deceptive marketing of OxyContin and failed to report what they knew of abuses and deaths from the drug to the government.

When a federal prosecutor in 2001 said 59 people died from OxyContin in one state, Purdue Pharma’s then-President Richard Sackler sent an email to company officials, saying, “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse.” Court documents also included an email Sackler sent at about the same time, strategically shifting the blame for the crisis from drug companies to the addicts: “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

“Richard followed that strategy for the rest of his career: collect millions from selling addictive drugs, and blame the terrible consequences on the people who became addicted,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said in a statement

Healey wants a jury to find Purdue Pharma and eight members of the Sackler family guilty of public nuisance, negligence, and unfair and deceptive acts and practices. If found guilty, they would have to pay damages, fees, and return the money they gained through the deceptive practices.

The Sacklers have a museum at Harvard University and a wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art named for them. As the opioid crisis deepened this past year, protesters scattered pill bottles and hung derogatory banners at the museums, demanding the museums remove the Sackler name.

Purdue Pharma released a statement in response, claiming the state of Massachusetts was targeting one company instead of “doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis.”

In 2007, a federal investigation led to criminal charges against three Purdue Pharma executives who admitted to deceiving the public about the risks of OxyContin, with the company paying out more than $600 million in fines. Purdue Pharma also paid out $19.5 million in a settlement with 26 states and the District of Columbia in 2009. So far, at least 37 states have sued the company in cases related to OxyContin abuse.

Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

Criminal records up in smoke

Adults with criminal records solely for marijuana possession can now get a clean slate in Washington state. Gov. Jay Inslee, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, announced an initiative to pardon marijuana misdemeanors at the annual conference of the Cannabis Alliance on Jan. 4.

“We shouldn’t be punishing people for something that is no longer illegal in Washington state,” Inslee said. “Forgiving these convictions can help lessen their impact and allow people to move on with their lives.”

Criminal records make getting a job or housing more difficult, and civil rights groups point out that a disproportionate number of African-Americans have marijuana misdemeanor charges. The governor’s website states that the Marijuana Justice Initiative “moves us in the direction of correcting injustices that disproportionately affected communities of color.”

Washington was one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. The new measure applies to people who committed marijuana misdemeanors between 1993 and 2012 and have no other criminal charges. An estimated 3,500 people are eligible for the new initiative.

For more on the pitfalls of pot consumption and the big business of marijuana legalization, see WORLD Magazine’s five-part series from last year. —C.C.

Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith announces the affordable housing plan Thursday in Bellevue, Wash.

Houses by Windows

Microsoft President Brad Smith announced a plan last week to give $500 million toward affordable housing in Seattle, responding to a problem the company helped create.

The Seattle area is home to both Microsoft and Amazon, and the influx of new jobs brought with it a housing crisis. Supply cannot meet demand, driving prices up far higher than middle-income workers like firefighters and teachers can afford to pay.

On Thursday, Smith announced the company’s plan to benefit its nontech employees, like housekeepers and cafeteria workers, as well as other middle- to low-income workers in the area. The company is designating $225 million to make low-interest loans for the preservation and construction of middle-income housing in six Seattle suburbs, including Redmond, where Microsoft is headquartered. Another $250 million will provide market-rate loans for low-income housing throughout the area, and $25 million will go toward grants to alleviate homelessness in Seattle.

Last year, Seattle proposed a tax on large companies to help fund homeless services and low-income housing. Microsoft did not take a position on the tax, but Amazon successfully opposed it. Other tech companies have tried to help support local homeless services or provide housing for their own employees, but longtime locals are still hurt by the housing crisis. The situation is not unique to Seattle. In California, middle-income workers like teachers are feeling the squeeze of lack of housing, and property prices in Austin, Texas, are skyrocketing as tech companies settle in. —C.C.

Facebook/Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge Facebook/Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona

Please do not feed the migrants

Two U.S. government departments authorized the prosecution of four members of an aid group who illegally left food and water for migrants in a nature preserve near the U.S. southern border.

On Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco found Natalie Hoffman, Oona Holcomb, Madeline Huse, and Zaachila Orozco-McCormick guilty of misdemeanor charges, including entering land without permission and abandonment of property. In addition, Hoffman was charged with illegally operating a motor vehicle in the wilderness area. In 2017, the four members of the group called No More Deaths left food and gallon jugs of water in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.

The judge said they failed to obtain permits to be there and disobeyed the rules of the preserve. The four volunteers could get six months in prison and $500 in fines, according to a news release on the group’s website. No More Deaths claims that 155 people have died in the wildlife preserve since 2001. They say the food and water they left were lifesaving for migrants.

Five other members of No More Deaths will go to trial over the next two months for similar charges. —C.C.

Tidying up

The new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo sparked an uptick in donations to Goodwill and thrift stores in January.

The series, released on New Year’s Eve, follows Marie Kondo as she helps families organize their houses with the method detailed in her 2014 best-selling book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She instructs people living in clutter to hold in hand each item and only keep it if it “sparks joy.” The positive minimalist show became wildly popular, and Kondo’s Instagram followers increased from 710,000 on Dec. 31 to 1.8 million in three weeks.

A manager at Beacon’s Closet, a thrift store in New York City, told CNN it received thousands of items a day in the typically slow month of January. Ravenswood Used Books in Chicago reported receiving a month’s worth of donations in a week.

Goodwill Industries of Central Oklahoma said donations were up 6.5 percent from this time last year. Heather Warlick, marketing and communications manager, credited Kondo’s show with the increase: “A lot of people are really taking this time to declutter their homes and, if there’s things that don’t bring you joy, you should donate them to Goodwill because there’s a good chance they’re going to bring another family joy.” —C.C.

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Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.

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    Posted: Fri, 01/25/2019 07:01 pm

    You will probably find the opiod protestors at their neighborhood bars getting plastered. 

    There are people who drink, drive and kill. And people who die from too much alcohol.

    Why don't we protest bars and alcohol consumption as well?