- Dan Connors
Dopesick- Hulu's maddening, sad miniseries on the opioid crisis.
Watch the trailer above to get some idea what this miniseries was about, and watch all episodes if you can. It will make you both mad and sad, and it's all based on a true story. This dark tale covers a fictional doctor and town in West Virginia, and all the misery that comes from the dangerous opioid, Oxycontin. I learned a lot from watching it, as I've thankfully not known anybody that got addicted to this lethal pain-killer.
Dopesick bounces back and forth from the beginning of the epidemic to its recent ending, with the greedy Sackler family having to settle a massive lawsuit and give up their company. (They got to keep their billions, a maddening detail but not at all surprising.) The series focuses on four distinct groups, all entangled in this terrible story, and how they came to represent the best and worst of our dysfunctional medical system.
First, there is the Sackler family, a group of billionaires that came up with a new drug with old and destructive origins, (opium). They claimed that their timed-release mechanism kept it from being addictive, only to find out early in the release that people were getting addicted. Dopesick is a term used for people who become physically sick and mentally dependent on the pain relieving properties of opioids once the medicine starts to wear off. Instead of pulling the product off the market, the Sacklers doubled down, encouraging people to take higher and higher doses of the drug to handle "breakthrough pain." This only resulted in worse withdrawal symptoms for the public and more profits for Purdue. To carry out their plan, Purdue hired a slick sales and marketing team that visited doctors in rural America where work-related pain was an issue. The sales team was fed lies and given promotional videos, gifts, and vacations to offer to unsuspecting doctors.
The heroes of the story, the second group, are the prosecutors and investigators who followed this story and brought the first criminal judgements against the company. US Attorney John Brownlee and his investigators figure highly in this story, and it is their pursuit of leads against the Sackler family that finally brought Purdue to justice. It seems the corporations are rarely called to account for their abuses, and to see it happen to an exceptionally dishonest and evil one gives one a tiny bit of faith in our system of justice. Brownlee and his investigators, Rick Mountcastle and Randy Ramseyer met with resistance not only from Purdue, but also from government regulators who were neglecting their jobs.
A second villain that I hadn't known about is the enablers that were inside the government that helped Purdue in their quest to addict America. An FDA administrator, Curtis Wright, who oversaw the approval process for Oxycontin in 1997, left the government to work for Purdue- getting a $400,000 salary. Wright approved the drug and allowed Purdue to claim a 1% addiction rate based on nothing. I knew that corruption exists in every government, but was saddened to hear about how rampant it is with drugs and their enforcement. The DEA and FDA are portrayed in this story as bending over backwards to accommodate Purdue, even after the evidence mounts against its drug. Rudy Giuliani pops up as a lawyer who defends Purdue right after leaving the mayor's office in NYC.
The fourth group that is poignantly told in this story is the victims. Many started taking Oxycontin on the advice of their doctors to relieve chronic and mild cases of muscle pain. Many were from rural areas like West Virginia and Maine where physical labor takes a toll on the body. The drug changes the wiring of the brain, making life without it seem unbearable. Some victims went up to higher and higher doses, and those who couldn't afford it ended up on stronger illegal versions like Fentanyl and Heroin. One woman goes to an addiction support group at church and obtains drugs from a dealer in the ladies room. Many died from overdoses and many more lost jobs and marriages as the drug took over their lives. The only successful therapy involves Methadone, a drug that copies Opium but with fewer side effects. All of that is portrayed honestly in his 8-hour miniseries.
Dopesick is based on a book of the same name, and though some of the characters are fictionalized, the story is all too true. Looking back into the history of opium usage, though, we can see that what Purdue Pharma did was nothing new. Opium and its effects were known as far back as 3400 BC in Mesopotamia. Its pleasure inducing properties were used by the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians.
For over 5,000 years mankind has struggled with its Opium dance- going from recreational use to hard-core addiction and back again. Attempts have been made to regulate it for centuries, with not much success. It's no surprise then that Purdue Pharma found a way to profit from this magical pain-relieving drug by skirting on the edges of science and law.
Probably the saddest story in the history of Opium abuse is that of China. The British discovered that they could grow Opium poppies in India, ship the drug to China, and make enormous profits. For 150 years they did just that, going to war twice to force the Chinese to keep taking their drugs even as the emperors tried to restrict its trade. It was only by 1910 that the British relented and dismantled their cash cow. Opium and heroin trade has kept right on going, with Southeast Asia becoming the new hub of this destructive economy.
Addictive behavior is depressingly popular. Casinos, Facebook, alcoholic, tobacco, pornography, and video games all depend on people mindlessly coming back for more, knowing that without their product, withdrawal is an unpleasant result and a return to reality to be avoided at all costs.
We all need to double down on reality. Pain is okay. It's your body sending you messages. For acute, agonizing pain- drugs are fine. But for chronic pain, lifestyle and mindset adjustments are much more preferable to drugs. Boredom is also okay. Find a friend, non-addictive hobby, or pet to take your mind off of the uncomfortable things in your life. Look for the things you would suffer the most if they were taken away, and try to detach from them.
The miniseries Dopesick is about much more than one evil family. It's about our reliance on addictive foods and drugs to create artificial happiness. The real thing is much more reliable and fulfilling.