By John Marciano, Talent

            On October 21, the New York Times reported that Purdue Pharma, the maker of opioids such as Oxycontin, will plead guilty to criminal charges and be fined $8.3 billion dollars. This plea could lead the way for “a settlement of thousands of lawsuits brought against the company for its role in the opioids epidemic.” The guilty plea, however, comes far too late for those who suffered and died as a result of Purdue’s desire to accumulate profits.  

            Purdue Pharma is owned principally by members of the Sackler family, who in 2019 were the 19th richest family in the country (net worth: $13 billion dollars). The company has faced a number of criminal cases, including mislabeling OxyContin. Despite these suits, it continued to market and sell opioids and then filed for bankruptcy in September 2019.

The Sackler family will also pay $225 million in civil penalties, and an ongoing investigation might bring criminal charges against executives or individual family members. Given the past history in such cases, however, that’s highly unlikely.  Settlements with fines against such companies and owners do occur, but imprisonment is extremely rare. The Times also admitted, however, that it is unlikely that Purdue will have to pay anything near the $8.3 billion figure, because it is now in bankruptcy court where the federal government “will have to take its place in a long line of creditors.”

Purdue is merely the most prominent defendant in the opioid epidemic crisis that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has resulted in the deaths of more than 450,000 Americans since 1999. According to data from the Oregon Center for Health Statistics, 614 people died from opioids in Jackson County from 2004 through 2018.

            Let’s imagine a Purdue Big Pharma lawsuit in our county. A very profitable company and its multimillionaire owners plead guilty to criminal negligence in the deaths of more than 600 people and are allowed to simply pay a fine—a small amount compared to the massive profits they accumulated from the sale of the lethally dangerous product. But no company executive or family owner is imprisoned for their role in the deaths of our friends and neighbors.  What would be the public’s response: outrage or passive acceptance as the big shots go scot free?  

The fine-only result would uphold a key pattern of U.S. justice: When the corporate rich and powerful commit crimes, such a as they did during the Great Recession in 2008, it’s not a crime but the price of doing business. We should recall that not one major banker went to prison after the 2008 crash even though millions of Americans lost their homes and jobs—as bank executives and other capitalist high rollers were protected by the Obama administration and Republicans. U.S. history tells us that often it’s not the crime that determines the punishment, but the social status of the perpetrators and victims. Time and again, the rich and powerful walk while others suffer and die.  

John Marciano