How America Got Hooked on Opiods

Still from Crisis.

When a publicist sent me a press release and screener for Nicholas Jarecki’s “Crisis”, I looked forward to covering a film by a director who I acclaimed as making one of the best films of 2012: “9. Arbitrage – Don’t tell Oliver Stone that I said so, but this is much better than his “Wall Street” sequel.”

One of his personal quotes on IMDB will give you a sense of what motivated him to take aim at a fictionalized version of the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma infamy in “Crisis” as well as a billionaire arbitrageur who kept his role in the death of his mistress a secret a la Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick in the earlier work. “I think that people need to become more educated about money. We need to stop creating systems that benefit only the most-cutthroat sharks.”

“Crisis” is the first narrative film to tell the story of how both criminal gangs and prestigious philanthropist families worked to extract blood money from American families in recent years through the sale of opioids like Oxycodone. Set in Detroit and Montreal, it begins with the arrest of a man in a white camouflage suit dragging a sled full of pain-killers across the Canadian border.

In short order, it introduces us to three of the main characters, who are key to interwoven subplots.

First is a university professor who runs a lab that has developed opioids for the Northlight corporation, an obvious fictionalized version of Purdue. Played by Gary Oldman (who also was an executive producer) in a gratifying departure from scenery-chewing impersonation-based performances (Churchill, Mankiewicz), he leads a team developing Karalon, a new non-addictive opioid that will ensure Northlight’s super-profits for years to come. However, when a clinical trial using white mice reveals that they killed themselves from overdoses, Oldman confronts the executives with the bad news. Unsurprisingly, they still decide to go to market, thus forcing him to become a whistle-blower and risk being fired by his university that relies heavily on Northlight funding.

Next is an undercover cop played by Armie Hammer who is on the trail of “Mother”, a Montreal drug dealer (and a man) who he has partnered with to make a huge purchase of black-market Fentanyl. Hammer has a particular interest in seeing the dealers behind bars since his kid sister is addicted to opioids herself.

Finally, there is the single mom played by Evangeline Lilly, a Canadian actress, who lives comfortably with her hockey-playing teen son David. Without his knowledge, he became a mule for Mother’s network who then pays for this with his life. Lilly becomes consumed by his death and sets out on a vendetta to make the dealer pay for his cruelty.

All of “Crisis” is solid but the scenes with Oldman are great. Like many men and women in academia, he is caught between two worlds—the corporation and the classroom. In some of the more intense scenes, he tries to get the university president played by Greg Kinnear to take his side in his struggle with Northlight. Accustomed to balancing budgets rather than saving the lives of the opioid-addicted, who would never end up as students there anyway, Kinnear will help you understand why the rich and educated elites never cared much about the 100,000 or so people who died of overdoses each year. On May 16, the Guardian reported on Big Pharma executives who mocked “pillbillies” in emails that were presented as evidence in a West Virginia opioid trial. One email included a rhyme built around “a poor mountaineer” named Jed who “barely kept his habit fed”. Another described Kentucky as “OxyContinville” because of the high use of the drug in the poor rural east of the state.

“Crisis” is available now on a full gamut of VOD servers, including iTunes, Amazon Prime and Vudu. Highly recommended.

Now showing as a two-part documentary on HBO, Alex Gibney’s “Crime of the Century” is an excoriating indictment of the Sackler family. Unlike the executives who mocked their victims, there are heroes as well as victims in Gibney’s film, including Dr. Art Van Zee. In the 1990s, he noticed that his small town in rural Virginia was coming apart at the seams. Parents and grandparents complained to him that their children had become addicted to OxyContin. Gibney’s footage includes some of these kids describing the kick they got out of a opium-laden pill. It is like watching Ron Howard as Opie shooting up. When Van Zee learned that the Sacklers were behind the plague, he combined community organizing against their network of suppliers with nonstop care for their victims.

One of the more interesting aspects of “Crime of the Century” is its historical background on opium sales. They say that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. If so, it runs neck-and-neck with drug dealing. During the reign of King Tut, the Egyptians were the first to sell the narcotic extracted from the opium poppy across the Mediterranean. Next, Alexander the Great became a player, introducing opium to India. Years later, the British East Indian company manufactured “cannonballs” of opium, named for their likeness to the weapon, that were sold in China. If China resisted their import, the British forced them to comply with real cannonballs. Americans also got into the act, including John Jacob Astor and Warren Delano, Franklin’s grandfather. By 1839, opium was the world’s largest traded commodity.

Despite all the hefty fines levied on the Sacklers, as well their being ostracized from the tuxedo and evening gown circuit, there’s little indication that these criminals of the century will end up behind bars. There may be stricter enforcement at the local level but as long as there is a demand for a commodity, there will be a demand. It reminds me of what Warren Buffett once said: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.”

Despite being forced into bankruptcy, Purdue’s family owners will never have to face losing everything they own as was the possible fate of Gary Oldman’s character. In an audit conducted by AlixPartners, it was revealed that the Sacklers withdrew $10.7 billion from Purdue after the company began to receive legal scrutiny. That’s a nice golden parachute.

As the ultimate outlier, Columbia University professor Carl L. Hart has made the case for shooting heroin as a recreational drug. Most of his arguments are uncontestable but lacking in context. He told the university magazine:

The most vital argument focuses on the concept of liberty as guaranteed by our Declaration of Independence. The Declaration states that each of us is endowed with certain rights, including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that governments are created for the purpose of protecting these rights. I use the topic of drug use to show how we, as a society, are failing to live up to the country’s noble promise to all citizens.

Of course, it should be the right of an individual to decide what substance to use in order to become “happy” but that is not the real question facing the U.S. Unless the dependency grows out of a legitimate pain treatment, most people start using opiates because it fills a need that day-to-day existence cannot. To really end the opioid crisis requires an end to class society, something that the ruling class would never allow, not even if a million people a year died of overdoses.

Indeed, Columbia University suffered a “crisis” of its own, not that different from the one that nearly cost Gary Oldman’s character his job. On October 1, 2019, the Columbia Spectator published an article titled “Columbia’s crisis of complicity” that demonstrates how the Sacklers knew how to buy friends in high places:

So then, why has Columbia, in light of the Sacklers’ actions, not changed the name of their [Sackler] Institute for Developmental Psychobiology? Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that Columbia has halted future donations from the Sacklers after a review, but has not taken further action. What are they waiting for? Already, the Louvre and other prominent global institutions have torn down the name from their walls. Stripping the name from the Institute alongside The Sackler Award and Sackler Prize would do much to eliminate the association of the Sackler name with the life’s work of researchers looking to do real good. It would also make sure future donors understand that reputations cannot be burnished by money alone.

For a university that asks its students to abide by a code of integrity at risk of expulsion, Columbia does not seemingly have many scruples about undermining its own. Core values that Columbia extols of honesty, integrity, and altruism are debased by donations that help prop up a family whose crimes have potentially killed tens of thousands. We must demand immediate change.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.