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Comfortably Numb: The Sackler Oxycontin Cartel

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Comfortably Numb: The Sackler Oxycontin Cartel

by John Kendall Hawkins

China has an opium problem -- again. And an American family is to blame.

As the avid historian of China's insulated dynastic past knows, the Century of Humiliation, from 1839-1939, had as its centerpiece the Opium Wars fought by the Qing dynasty against the British to prevent its subjects going from casual opium users to full-blown addicts. When the Chinese began destroying opium caches, like Bostonians destroyed tea chests in protest just before the Revolutionary War, the Brits opened fire, razed palaces, raped women and looted priceless imperial treasures, and, ultimately, chased the Emperor out of town. Other Europeans and Americansexploited the opening to force China to "trade" with the West: for centuries, Europeans had lusted for Chinese goods, but had nothing much the Chinese wanted. Hong Kong was seized by the Brits as compensation for winning the Opium Wars they forced. Even the name "China" is derived externally, through the Portuguese, from Sanskrit. Internally, they called it Zh├... Źnggu├â │ (Middle Kingdom).

Just yesterday, I was reading in Stat+ magazine that the infamous Sackler family is trying to sell off their Chinese branch of Mundipharma (read: world pusher) for more than a billion dollars. Back in 2019, the family was forced to fess up their criminal misrepresentation of Oxycontin's addictive qualities over the years, leading to a settlement in the billions of dollars, and driving Purdue Pharma, the drug's manufacturer, into bankruptcy. Rather than feeling remorse or empathy for the addictions they caused and hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths, Sackler began an extension of their pain "relief" empire overseas, including entry into the Chinese pharma market through their worldwide tentacles embodied by Mundipharma -- using the same tactics that had got them in trouble in America.

Talk about chutzpah. And an elite philanthropic doctor family with the criminal mindedness of a street pusher. The Sackler family started out decades ago as purveyors of fine laxatives -- Senokot! As they declared at the time, "Constipation is a world problem." Now they're a world problem, and, as their 2019 settlement and subsequent China incursion shows, they're full of sh*t. Patrick Radden Keefe, who provides the quote above, explains the whole epic sh*t storm of disgrace in his new book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. Keefe is an award-winning New Yorker writer who has previously put out other critically acclaimed works, such as the Orwell Prize-winning, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2019) and, The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (2010).

The first thing the reader wants to know is what Keefe can add to the, by now, broadly covered investigations and revelations about Purdue Pharma's dishonesty in marketing Oxycontin, ignoring critics of their willful disregard of facts, and turning millions of Americans into dope addicts in the largest epidemic of its kind in American history. Keefe has an answer. He tells the reader that his interest in the Oxycontin story was inspired by the 2016Los Angeles Times reporting on the crisis, as well as his readings of Sam Quinones' Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic (2015), and Barry Meier's, Pain Killer: The Extraordinary and True Story of Oxycontin (2003) -- available for reading at Archive.Org.

But Keefe was after a different angle. He wanted to pursue the secret life of the Sackler family, the rise of their dynasty, and the internal moral integrity of their decision-making over generations. The mentality, more than the material. Keefe writes,

There are many good books about the opioid crisis. My intention was to tell a different kind of story, however, a saga about three generations of a family dynasty and the ways in which it changed the world, a story about ambition, philanthropy, crime and impunity, the corruption of institutions, power, and greed. As such, there are aspects of the public health crisis that this book gives scant attention to, from the science of addiction to the best strategies for treatment and abatement to the struggles of people living with an opioid use disorder.

These addiction and treatment topics are treated in some detail in the works of some of the inspirational sources he cites in Empire of Pain.

The book is segmented into three Books: Patriarch, Dynasty, and Legacy. Keefe begins with a benign take on the Sackler family, extolling their virtues as an American Dream success story. Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond are first generation sons of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Poland. They are 'miracle' boys, each becoming psychiatrists, Arthur, the eldest, dominating and setting the developing family narrative of success on its way. In fact, Arthur provided for both his parents and his brothers, and was seen by them, writes Keefe, as more of a father figure than an older brother. Arthur is the key figure in the family, the catalyst of their shared dynamism. And it begins with Arthur's high school years. He attended Erasmus High:

Erasmus was a great stone temple to American meritocracy, and most of the time it seemed that the only practical limitation on what he could expect to get out of life would be what he was personally prepared to put into it.

Keefe notes that almost immediately Arthur took to writing ads for school publications.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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