At Tuesday’s Democratic debate, several presidential candidates agreed on one point: The pharmaceutical executives who helped create the opioid epidemic should go to prison.
Asked directly whether opioid executives should be locked up, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said:
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro agreed:
This isn’t a brand new position.
The case for prosecuting the Sacklers and other opioid executives
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the frontrunner in some polls, has targeted the Sackler family, which owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma — calling for “an America where when people like the Sacklers destroy millions of lives to make money, they don’t get museum wings named after them, they go to jail.”
Similarly, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tweeted, “The Sackler family and Purdue Pharma helped cause the opioid crisis through aggressive marketing and lobbying of the opioid painkiller OxyContin. We must hold the pharmaceutical companies and executives that created the opioid crisis accountable.”
As I’ve written before, there’s a good case for this: Even after the lawsuits and fines against opioid companies, many of the executives will walk away from the crisis as billionaires. The criminal justice system offers a way to hold opioid executives accountable where lawsuits have failed.
“If [the Sacklers] have the perception — and it’s the correct perception — that ‘people like us just don’t go to jail, we just don’t, so the worst that’s going to happen is you take some reputational stings and you’ll have to write a check,’ that seems like a recipe for nurturing criminality,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, told me.
How the Democratic presidential candidates would combat the opioid epidemic
Since the 1990s, more than 200,000 people have died of painkiller overdose deaths, with another roughly 200,000 dying from other opioids — in many cases, after using painkillers first. Pharmaceutical companies were at the forefront of causing the crisis with aggressive marketing that pushed doctors to prescribe more painkillers, putting the drugs not just in the hands of patients but also friends and family of patients, teens who took the drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, and people who bought excess pills from the black market.
“You can go to prison for accidentally killing one person with your car. That’s the minimum standard,” Rick Claypool, a research director at Public Citizen, told me. “The idea that you can run a company and cause societal-level devastation and walk away from that relatively unscathed is mind-boggling.”
For more on the case for prosecuting opioid executives, read Vox’s full piece.