The deadly drug that funded the U.S. museums

Ever heard of opium? In this day and age, you probably have. Opium comes from the poppy seed and has been around since 3200 BC. Quite a long time if you ask me. His deadly nature was already known in Ancient Greece when poppies, were featured in works of art alongside  Thanatos (Death), Hypnos (Sleep) and Nyx (Night). Death, sleep and night were portrayed along side poppies; poppies were adorning sculptures of the Gods of Olympus. Opium was used as an anaesthetic and a drug. From Islam to China, its medical use was widespread up until its gradual replacement by synthetic substances during the 20th century. Codeine and oxycodone along with morphine, the most used painkillers of the 21st century, are all derived from opium. They are used after operations and are usually prescribed to patients that struggle with chronic pain. Since humans have a tendency to self-destruction, opioids have become the baseline for addiction and eventually, deadly overdoses. It all started when a drug that was marketed as revolutionary for millions struggling with pain every day became a whole nation’s nightmare. It’s name? OxyContin.

OxyContin’s main ingredient is oxycodone. The substance was synthesized for the first time in 1916 at the University of Frankfurt as an alternative to heroin. Oxycodone was the substance of choice for battlefield analgesics during the Second World War. Pervitin and Eudokal were incredibly popular amongst soldiers during the War and the German army gave Pervitin to its soldiers before critical battles. Even Hitler was hooked on Eudokal, OxyContin’s predecessor. His physician Dr. Morell used to give him injections when times were hard and the Germans were losing their ground. Hitler was in fact addicted to the drug. When Brits were bombing German pharmaceutical plants and finding the drug was virtually impossible, Hitler developed withdrawal symptoms. Opioids were a solution in situations of high pressure for humanity. However, their side effects were sometimes lethal. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that MS Contin was first developed by a company called Purdue Pharma. The company developed a controlled release formula that allowed the gradual release of morphine into the bloodstream of the patient; this meant that it would take 5 or 6 hours for its effect to wear off. MS Contin was a commercial success, but Purdue Pharma wanted to prevail over its competitors. It wasn’t long before oxycodone came into play.

Even though Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers were aware of the potential danger of addiction, they were extremely devoted to the plan of creating an oxycodone based pill. It wasn’t long until its inception by Purdue that OxyContin, the first controlled-release oxycodone painkiller was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, shockingly without any clinical trials on potential addiction or abuse side effects. It was even marketed as safer than other painkillers due to its controlled-release formula. Its approval seems suspicious, especially if we take into account that the FDA examiner that was responsible of overseeing the process of OxyContin’s approval started working for Purdue Pharma two years later. From 1995 onwards Purdue started marketing OxyContin as a powerful painkiller that could help not only cancer patients but also people with less serious conditions, such as back pain and arthritis. Purdue followed an aggressive marketing strategy inviting doctors to seminars and hiring doctors to write positively about the drug’s benefits. For a narcotic that was approved without clinical trials on abuse potential, the Sacklers were making risky moves. Their sales representatives even re-assured doctors that addiction rates were as low as 1%, when their studies showed that 13% of patients that used OxyContin for headaches eventually became addicted to it. A few years the official release of the drug in the market, doctors started over-prescribing it and pills started circulating in the black market. OxyContin was a huge success for Purdue, with sales surging past 1$ billion by 2001.

However, a big opioid epidemic was already underway in the United States. Canada followed. Lots of patients using opioids would get addicted and eventually get hooked on heroin when they couldn’t get access to oxycodone. OxyContin was the starting point for lots of tragic stories leading to deaths from heroin or oxycodone overdose. The numbers of deadly overdoses caused by opioids were rising through the 1990s and overdose became a severe cause of death amongst the American population. Two thirds of deaths caused by an overdose are attributed to opioid abuse. Some states suffer more than the others with West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania ranking high on the death toll statistics. While thousands of people were dying across the US, the family that owns Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers, had already made a name of themselves as the family that built the Sackler Wing at the MOMA in New York. They didn’t stop there, though. They also contributed to the creation of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum inside the Harvard University Campus. They continued funding the world’s largest cultural institutions such as the Guggenheim, Tate Modern, the National History Museum in London and some of the biggest universities. Despite the fact that they were profiting off the sales of one of the deadliest drugs in the US, the family managed to keep the source of their wealth relatively quiet and their name clean.

As the death toll increased and researchers grew more and more certain of the addictive nature of the drug, the Sacklers started facing serious scrutiny. It wasn’t long before the first lawsuit against Purdue Pharma was filed in 2002. This first case reached a seventy five million dollar settlement in 2006. Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in Virginia, when prosecutors managed to prove that the company was intending to mislead or defraud patients with its marketing strategy. Fortunately, the art world is slowly but surely starting to open their eyes to the opioid epidemic and the family’s involvement in it after a huge protest staged by photographer Nan Goldin took over the Guggenheim Museum in February. Nan Goldin refused to stage a retrospective with the Tate group unless they declined a 1 million dollar donation coming from the Sackler Foundation. The donation was cancelled, but the fight against the opioid epidemic isn’t stopping anytime soon.

In 2018, a group of activists, artists and people struggling with opioid addiction started P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) started pressuring the Sackler Family, the museums and universities that accepted the families’ donations in an effort to eliminate the number of deaths across the US. The group is organized by Nan Goldin, a world-class photographer that has struggled with addiction after being prescribed opioids for pain management and survived an almost lethal overdose. P.A.I.N. has staged protests in museums and galleries, such as the Guggenheim and the Arthur M. Sackler Harvard Museum. The Sackler Family now face not one but 2.000 cases filed against them by state and county officials throughout the States. The company is willing to settle, but it’s unclear whether this goal is feasible. It’s not easy to persuade state officials to settle for 2.000 lawsuits, especially when there are almost 200 people dying because of OxyContin every day. Those Pollock’s at the Guggenheim have started to seem less innocent after all.