As the opioid crisis continues to rage in the US, pharmaceutical manufacturers, activist groups, and state and local governments are engaged in an increasingly heated battle over who bears responsibility for the deadly epidemic and how best to treat it. On Monday, in response to recent news that Richard Sackler, whose family owns Purdue Pharma, had been part of a patent of an updated anti-opioid treatment medication earlier this year, photographer and opioid crisis activist Nan Goldin shared a scathing statement with artnet News, co-written with addiction activist and author Ryan Hampton and activist artist collective Queer Appalachia.**
“They are profiting off the crisis that they subsidized with their most profitable pill, OxyContin,” Goldin and the co-authors write. “This is reprehensible and shows a lack of any moral conscience. Maybe they can patent a funeral parlor next.” The statement goes on to condemn Purdue, its owners—the billionaire Sackler family that has deep ties to the art world—and other drug makers for generating any profit from urgently needed anti-opioid treatments, demanding that they should be made available for free.
“It is evil to profit from deliberately making people sick, then selling them a ‘cure’ for their illness,” the group writes.
Goldin’s response to the rollout of the anti-opioid drugs comes as no surprise. Around the same time of Sackler’s patent in January, the artist founded her activist group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). The group has since taken on the Sackler family for their complicity in the creation and marketing of the painkiller Oxycontin. (Goldin was herself heavily addicted to the drug for years after being prescribed it for a wrist injury.)
A report in the Financial Times from September 7 revealed that a related company, Rhodes Pharma, had patented a reformulated version of the pre-existing drug Buprenorphine back in January. The drug, applied under the tongue, helps to wean addicts off of opioids, and the new version dissolves even faster than its predecessors. Dr. Richard Sackler is listed as one of the inventors.
Rhodes Pharma, according to another recent FT report, is also tied to the Sackler family. The FT states that it was established in 2007, a few months after Purdue pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of mis-marketing OxyContin. A Purdue spokesperson told artnet News that the company “does not own this patent and we have no intention of profiting from it.”*
But this was not the only piece of news—Purdue Pharma has experienced a flurry of media coverage in recent days. On September 5, the company announced a $3.42 million grant for nonprofit pharmaceutical company Harm Reduction Therapeutics, to help advance the development of a low-cost, anti-opioid over-the-counter nasal spray called Naloxone.
James P. Doyle, vice president and general counsel of Rhodes Pharmaceuticals L.P. shared a statement with artnet News on the Buprenorphine patent: “Rhodes Pharmaceuticals has a patent, but we do not have a developed or approved product, and therefore no money has been made from this technology. The invention behind the Buprenorphine patent in question was developed more than a dozen years ago. If a product is developed under this patent, it will not be commercialized for profit.”*
The spokesperson from Purdue told artnet News that the FT reporting on Rhodes and Purdue was “based on speculation.”*
In a press release, Craig Landau, president and CEO of Purdue Pharma, pointed to Naxolone and the nonprofit grant as evidence that the company is actively addressing opioid abuse. Goldin tells artnet News that she and her group find the recent announcement of the Naxalone grant to be a “low-income PR stunt.”*
“Purdue is committed to advancing patient care and public safety. While Naloxone accessibility cannot be seen as a single solution, it must be part of our collective actions,” Landau wrote. “This grant is one example of the meaningful steps Purdue is taking to help address opioid abuse in our communities. Collaborating with a variety of partners is crucial to address the crisis we’re facing, and we are honored to support Harm Reduction Therapeutics as they work to prevent opioid-related deaths by increasing access to Naloxone.”
Since Goldin launched her direct-action platform, the artist has staged surprise protest “die-ins” at several museums in the US, including the Met and others that have received Sackler money. In April, she spoke before the US Senate in Washington, DC, about her movement.
“[AIDS] wiped out everyone,” Goldin said in her statement on Capitol Hill. “And I can’t afford to lose another generation… It’s time to start treating the sources of that pain, before we lose more people.”
A November 2017 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated that the opioid crisis costs the US $504 billion per year. According to the FT, some 1,000 lawsuits have been brought to Purdue Pharma by states and local governments who claim the drugmaker’s marketing tactics have sparked and sustained the opioid crisis.
The Sacklers and Purdue Pharma have long argued that OxyContin cannot be considered the primary offender in the current crisis because it accounts for only 1.7 percent of overall opioid prescriptions in the US. However, according to FT, Rhodes and Purdue together accounted for 14.4 million opioid prescriptions in 2016. Those figures would give them a total share of six percent of the US opioid market—good for seventh place among opioid makers.
You can read the full statement by Goldin, Ryan Hampton, and Queer Appalachia below:
The news that Richard Sackler, a member of Purdue’s Sackler family has received a patent for a “new and improved” Buprenorphine comes as no surprise, but is still alarming. They are profiting off the crisis that they subsidized with their most profitable pill, OxyContin. This is reprehensible and shows a lack of any moral conscience. Maybe they can patent a funeral parlor next.
The Sackler family has made billions from OxyContin, one of the strongest and most addictive opioid drugs on the market — manufactured by their company Purdue Pharma. Friday, they announced that they will obtain a patent for Buprenorphine, a life-saving addiction treatment medication. And just Sunday, it was revealed that The Sacklers have surreptitiously profited through sales of alternative generic opioids through their small company in Rhode Island since 2007. As the Financial Times Reports, Purdue claimed they’re only responsible for 1.7% of opioid prescriptions in the US, but we now know that the companies combined are responsible for a 6% total share of the opioid market. The Sacklers own their competitors.
Purdue helped create the opioid crisis by disseminating misleading marketing materials, giving fake “educational” seminars to prescribers, and buying politicians and officials who oversee drug policies. Now, Purdue is reaping what it has sown: more blood money. Forced to limit their sales of OxyContin, they search for other predatory ways to make profit, including a global company which seeks to make the world addicted — Mundipharma.
There is only one acceptable solution. Any and all antidotes for opiate addiction developed by any member of the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma, or any person who has been affiliated with them, should be given for free to all who suffer from drug addiction.
It is evil to profit from deliberately making people sick, then selling them a “cure” for their illness. This bait and switch has put millions of dollars in the Sackler family’s pockets, and hundreds of thousands of Americans into the ground. Many of the people affected by the opioid crisis are in rural, low income, industrial communities. They already carry the burden of overwhelming overdose rates, morgues that are filled with sons and daughters’ bodies, and crime, disease, and unemployment. Allowing the Sackler family to whitewash Purdue’s mess is hideously cruel and insurmountably cynical.
We demand that the patent be released so that generic drug makers can produce and sell Buprenorphine for pennies, to people in need. We demand that addiction be treated not as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness like diabetes. There are philanthropists who have spent their immorally gained money to rectify solutions to the damage they’ve done. The polio vaccine was made freely available by its creator, Jonas Salk. It is estimated that, by surrendering his patent, he forfeited $7 billion in revenue. Yet, because of his willingness to put people before profits, we live in an America where children no longer suffer from paraplegia and paralysis. Since 1955, polio has been nearly extinct.
Medical philanthropy, not profits, must be the next step. We absolutely support scientific discoveries that will help aid those who suffer from the illness of addiction.
The only thing that matters of course is that the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma, and other drug makers don’t benefit from such discoveries. They have no right to profit off of the damage done. They should be urgently seeking to develop non addictive alternative drugs for pain. Addiction affects many of us: Buprenorphine should be freely available to all. OxyContin should not be a “gateway drug” for Purdue’s other products. Recovery must belong to people, not corporations who cause and profit off our pain.
Shame on the Sacklers and shame on the federal government.
By: P.A.I.N., Ryan Hampton & Queer Appalachia
Update September 12: An earlier version of this story had incorrectly stated that Purdue had the patent for Buprenorphine. Rhodes Pharmaceuticals L.P. has a patent for the drug.
*The above statements were added to the story on September 12.
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.