Irene Suh / Daily Nexus

Ann Marie’s son Christopher was in a car accident at age 20 and was prescribed opioids for his back pain after the accident. He started taking more and more pills, eventually increasing his dosage from one pill to 25 pills a day. His mother described her opioid-addicted son as a completely different person from who he was before. He was withdrawn,  hostile and refused to seek treatment leading up to his death from an overdose only two years after the accident. 

Katie’s mother June has struggled with addiction ever since Katie was a young girl. June was always in and out of Katie’s life, creating a troubling environment for her to grow up in. Upon reflection, Katie understands this had less to do with who her mother was and far more to do with the terrible effects opioids can have on a person. Her mother felt like she needed the drugs and would do almost anything to continue taking them. 

The cases of Christopher and June are simply two out of hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from opioid addiction in this country. The opioid crisis has sent shockwaves through the country as horrifying numbers of people have died from overdoses and many continue to battle their addictions. In the past few weeks, there have been talks about the people closest to the proliferation of this tragic trend — the executives of the pharmaceutical companies. By no means are these companies innocent bystanders to everything that has occurred. While talks of settlement mark some progress in achieving justice for the victims and ameliorating the damage done, it is simply not enough. 

Pharmaceutical companies were directly involved in aggressive marketing strategies that resulted in doctors overprescribing dangerous and addictive painkillers. Many of the cases may have been in situations where painkillers were unnecessary, demonstrating a reckless disregard for human life. Pharmaceutical executives like the Sackler family, who has a current estimated net worth of $14 billion, disregarded the fact that the drugs they were pushing to prescribe were dangerous and instead depicted them as safe methods of treatment. Many people died as a result of their actions. They need to face more than just financial repercussions for what they did.

One of the biggest problems with only forcing pharmaceutical executives to pay money for the damage they have inflicted is that it puts a price on human lives. The money is said to go toward fixing this crisis, but it does little to bring closure to the families who have lost their loved ones as a result of it. This is not a problem that can be fixed solely by money. Another problem is that most of the talks involving settlements take place behind closed doors and very little knowledge is given to the public. Criminal trials allow people to learn about what is happening. The opioid crisis is a matter of public health, and people in this country have a right to know just how big of a role pharmaceutical executives and companies play in it.

One of the biggest problems with only forcing pharmaceutical executives to pay money for the damage they have inflicted is that it puts a price on human lives. The money is said to go toward fixing this crisis, but it does little to bring closure to the families who have lost their loved ones as a result of it. This is not a problem that can be fixed solely by money. Another problem is that most of the talks involving settlements take place behind closed doors and very little knowledge is given to the public. Criminal trials allow people to learn about what is happening. The opioid crisis is a matter of public health, and people in this country have a right to know just how big of a role pharmaceutical executives and companies play in it.

One of the biggest problems with only forcing pharmaceutical executives to pay money for the damage they have inflicted is that it puts a price on human lives.

The issue of harsher punishment for pharmaceutical executives has been a hot topic in the Democratic presidential debates. Several candidates are unhappy with the fact that the executives seem to be getting away more or less scot-free because, even if they end up paying financially, they will still come out as billionaires. According to a Forbes report, even if the Sackler family agreed to a settlement, they would still be worth between $1 to $2 billion.  Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out in the October Democratic debate that this is an example of the injustice plaguing the criminal justice system. She called for “an America where, when people like the Sacklers destroy millions of lives to make money, they don’t get museum wings named after them; they go to jail.” The wealthy have been able to buy their way out of punishment for blatantly committing crimes in this country for too long. They should not be considered above the law simply because of the amount of money they have. Senator Kamala Harris also touched upon this, referring to the ramifications of the opioid crisis as a “matter of justice and accountability.” Pharmaceutical executives need to be held accountable for their actions — actions which have resulted in more than 200,000 deaths across the nation.

The call for criminal prosecution against those most directly involved in the opioid crisis is by no means unprecedented. A few months ago, top executives of Insys Therapeutics were convicted of criminal racketeering for their role in the crisis. They were found to have been paying doctors to overprescribe opioids and falsely advertise its pain management capabilities. There is barely any evidence correlating the effectiveness of opioids with treating chronic pain and there is certainly not enough for them to have been prescribed at such a high rate. While it is an important step that the Insys executives were convicted on criminal charges, it is important to note that their founder, John Kapoor, whose net worth before this was $2.4 billion, is a person of color. It does not sit right that he is one of the few executives who has been prosecuted while no member of the Sackler family, all white, has been subjected to the criminal justice system. This only furthers the notion that being a rich, white male in this country is considered an appropriate exemption from receiving the same treatment as anyone else.

This begs the question of why it is not obviously considered criminal when a company of powerful executives causes the deaths of so many Americans.

It is considered a criminal act to kill a person in a car accident. It is considered a criminal act to kill a person through an armed robbery. This raises the question of why it is not obviously considered criminal when a company of powerful executives causes the deaths of so many Americans. They have lied and cheated their way through the medical system only to receive more profit in the process. Richard Sackler recently stated that “we have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are the reckless criminals.” Not only is this is a completely inaccurate deflection of blame, but it also shows how pharmaceutical executives will do anything to deny their role in the crisis. Our criminal justice system needs to treat everyone the same way. It needs to play a more active role in fixing the opioid epidemic and punishing those most involved. How else will this country establish that its notions of justice are not contingent upon socioeconomic status?

Surya Swaroop believes that all pharmaceutical executives involved in the opioid crisis should face criminal prosecution and serious prison time for the countless deaths they have caused.

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