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“Dopesick” (2021)–Lies Upon Lies

Based on journalist Beth Macy’s book Dopesick, this Hulu eight-episode miniseries focuses on the early epicenter of the US’s struggle with the opioid addiction. Purdue Pharma, the Sackler mega-company that manufactured the deadly painkiller OxyContin, is the catalyst for an epic tragedy involving the duplicitous collusion with drug distributors, doctors, university researchers, and government agencies (Department of Justice, DEA, and FDA).

Dopesick involves a series of characters impacted by OxyContin:. Finnix (Michael Keaton) a family physician in a small coal-mining town in Virginia,. Relying  on  Purdue’s claim that  addiction to OxyContin is rare, Finnix prescribes it to coal miners suffering severe pain.  Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson),   a determined DEA investigator, digs for the facts behind a rapid rise in crime in the state of Virginia.  Betsy (Kaitly Dever) is a teenage girl who suffers a serious back injury and receives OxyContin from Finnix.  Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) is a highly ambitious pharmaceutical sales rep for Purdue Pharma.  Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) is a US attorney in Virginia who begins investigating Purdue, joining with DEA’s Bridget Meyer. Each character’s story is from a different perspective  connected to OxyContin.

 Finnix begins to decrease Betsy’s  OxyContin prescription. Bridget zeroes in on mortality rates related to OxyContin. Rick Mountcastle investigates the world of “pain societies” and pharmaceutical sales “competitions”.   Richard Sackler makes increasingly dangerous business strategies for larger doses of OxyContin while his family is simultaneously repulsed and attracted to  his highly profitable schemes.

“Dopesick” refers to the excruciating withdrawal from OxyContin  Convincing evidence is laid out to prove how the multibillion-dollar Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, the private company’s owners,  are the true drug cartel behind America’s opioid crisis.  The Sacklers’  avoid culpability and accountability for years by paying relatively low million-dollar fines while retaining billions as they continued to increase distribution of the drug.  The drug lords here, like Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, are quite aware of the horrific consequences of their business.  As  a compelling study of corporate greed and unimaginable family dysfunction, Dopesick exposes the systemic manipulation of people for profit. 

With a marketing plan that promises pain relief without addiction, improving people’s lives without suffering, Purdue becomes obscenely rich while the Sackler family devolves into fear and deceit.  Here Dopesick trespasses on territory reserved for the fictional series “Succession” and  “Squid Game”.

Dopesick covers almost 25 years of the drug company’s history:  from the first release of OxyContin in 1996 to states’ failed attempts to sue Purdue beginning in 2004, to the relabeling of the drug as addictive in 2006 (“black boxing”) and to the litigation starting in 2007. The Sackler family’s antipathy for each other, the sales force cut-throat competition to win excessive bonuses and ultra-luxurious vacations, and the no-holds barred tactics to increase profits, even if it means death to its customers is raw, emotionally frightening and brutal. 

Dopesick is at its best when it mirrors investigative journalism, more educational than entertaining. Still, it is powerful storytelling in showing the complicity of big pharma, FDA, DEA, the Department of Justice  and politicians and academics..  Unique in its portrayal of addiction, Dopesick  depicts  withdrawals in  visceral detail where most other shows only touch the periphery.   While Dopesick can be viewed as another story of a company making obscene profits without scruples, the heroes and whisteblowers are reassuring–as in the movies Post and Spotlight.

Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Finnix.  The stellar supporting cast immerses us into  a small town ethos as well as the heinous corruption involving not only overtly craven bureaucrats but those who keep their jobs by keeping quiet.  The role of Rudy Giuliani as Purdue’s attorney in the early days of litigation is revealing of the fraudulent and unprecedented sales of this “magic pain pill” that remained impervious to any criminal charges.

The timeline and flashbacks may be confusing, and some jumping back and forth could have been avoided to make connecting the dots in Big Pharma’s duplicitous marketing power, egomaniacal and self-serving philanthropy, and impact on communities even more powerful. Celebrating donations to art museum collections while the desperately addicted die is memorable drama underscoring that Big Pharma is not our friend, no matter the advertising and public relations.

Dopesick is poignant in keeping its eye on emotional truth, on a sobering picture of monstrous greed.  Ripping back the curtain on one company among many, Dopesick  discloses how easily we can be taken advantage of.   Hulu’s Dopesick offers a reassuring moral clarity. The U.S. justice system has not reached similar clarity for Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers and other Big Pharma companies that earned billions selling prescription opioids as more and more Americans died. The battles are far from over.

A “can’t-miss” mini-series.

Availability:  Hulu streaming

Note:  Compare Dopesick with Crime of the Century, HBOMax documentary about the opiod crisis from director Alex Gibney.

Note:  500,000 Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses since 2000.   The ongoing crisis has continued to worsen under this pandemic.

Note:  Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain said (on September 7, 2021) he felt like the family at the center of this opioid crisis should have paid more. “But this is how corporate accountability works right now — and it appears the Sacklers navigated the system, brilliantly.”

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