A Secret Opioid Memo That Could Have Slowed an Epidemic

Producer/Director John Pappas

A confidential government document containing evidence so critical it had the potential to change the course of an American tragedy was kept in the dark for more than a decade. The document, known as a “prosecution memo,” details how government lawyers believed that Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful opioid, OxyContin, knew early on that the drug was fueling a rise in abuse and addiction. They also gathered evidence indicating that the company’s executives had misled the public and Congress.

“The Weekly” shines a light on that 2006 Justice Department memo and its consequences for today’s wave of lawsuits against opioid makers and members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma. We go with Barry Meier, the New York Times reporter who for two decades has chronicled how opioid abuse has ravaged America, as he travels back to where the crisis began.

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Prosecutors cited evidence in their 2006 memo that Sackler family members who own Purdue were sent reports about problems with the company’s drugs. But that evidence never came to light because the recommended felony charges against Purdue executives never went forward.

Instead, three executives, under a deal with the government, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that did not accuse them of wrongdoing. They had insisted they did nothing wrong, and the company denied there was a cover-up, saying that executives did not learn of problems with OxyContin until 2000. Prosecutors, in their memo, did not accuse the Sacklers of any wrongdoing and Dr. Richard Sackler has since testified he was unaware of any illegal activities at Purdue.

What follows are annotated excerpts from that memo used in reporting for this episode of “The Weekly.”

Advanced Warning

Prosecutors wrote that Purdue covered up OxyContin’s early abuse. Its executives said they only learned about the problem in early 2000.

Marketing

Dr. Sackler apparently pushed in 1997, prosecutors wrote, for videos promoting OxyContin in response to “concerns raised about the abuse potential.”

Potential for Abuse

Prosecutors believed that Purdue had concealed widespread abuse of OxyContin’s predecessor drug, MS Contin. It too was a long-acting opioid, a formulation that Purdue claimed made OxyContin less prone to abuse.

Internet Chatter

Dr. Sackler was sent an email in 1999, prosecutors found, that discussed how people in internet chat rooms were talking about snorting OxyContin.


  • Negotiations over a potential settlement between states and cities trying to contend with an epidemic of opioid abuse and the drugmakers who helped feed the epidemic has stalled.

  • The seeds of today’s epidemic were planted when Purdue introduced OxyContin and marketed the powerful drug as a treatment for all kinds of pain. Barry reported on evidence indicating that the company’s executives knew about the drug’s growing abuse much earlier than they said.

  • A sealed 2015 deposition by Richard Sackler of Purdue Pharma appears to be inconsistent with evidence contained in the 2006 Justice Department memo.

  • During his reporting on the memo, Barry was stunned to find his own name included in the confidential document.

  • Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids. States and cities continue to file a wave of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers and distributors.


Director of Photography: Andreas Burgess
Additional Cinematography: Vanessa Carr
Video Editor: Pierre Takal
Senior Story Editors: Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Associate Producer: Madeline Rosenberg