The Opioid Settlement, Stigma, Disempowerment, and Nonconsensual Third-Party Releases

We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible, they are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.” – Dr. Richard Sackler

The multibillion-dollar Opioid Settlement. The infamous first family of overdose deaths, the real criminals get awarded immunity. The “abusers” get hammered, once again. Families lost their chance at justice. We see and feel how our institutions marginalize the marginalized, once again.   

Let’s break down how it happened. The key to the outcome is called “Nonconsensual Third-Party Release.” The word nonconsensual is clear, it means without permission. Third Party means “a person or group besides the two primarily involved in a situation, especially in a dispute.” Release in the legal sense is defined as “a contractual agreement by which one individual assents to relinquish a claim or right under the law to another individual against whom such claim or right is enforceable.” So, a group that is characterized as outsiders (the families who watched their loved ones die) had their rights removed without their permission through an agreement by the other “primary” parties. Once the families were out the way, the corporate interests who made up the majority of the committee could divide up the spoils and take their legal fees. Try and explaining that to the kids of these families as “justice.”

I have been following with some interest over the years how the Sackler family misrepresented their products. They weaponized stigma to reap vast sums of money even as hundreds of thousands of other families across America buried their loved ones or tried to rebuild lives shattered by addiction. The costs of the settlement to the Sackler’s is less than what they will earn from their money horde over the span of the settlement payout. The settlement is just a business deal, worth every blood tainted penny pried out of their clutches to shield one of Americas wealthiest families from the consequences of their actions with the prize of immunity.

Not all families in America really are equal under the law, at least in practice. That is what is evident here. This family, the Sackler family the ones who lied about the risks of their drug and weaponized stigma were able to use their vast fortune to avoid the consequences of their conduct. They even pretended they represented the impacted families using a stealth campaign targeting the Justice Department in the weeks prior to the agreement. They got away with it all!  What would happen to any other American family who did that?

We have a long history of capitalizing the profits and socializing the consequences here in the United States. Each and every one of us will pay for what they did with our tax dollars and with the devastation in our communities for a few generations. The New York Times noted in an article on September 1st that “The Purdue settlement aligns with what some experts predicted from the outset: The money extracted through litigation will not be sufficient to cover the costs of the epidemic — including for law enforcement, treatment and social services — which some economists put in the trillions.” They profit, we pay, some of us with our lives.

I agree with Ryan Hampton’s New  York Times Op-ed, we need system reform. We also need to follow the money earmarked for our communities and ensure that what is promised gets there. We need to ask some hard questions to keep similar dynamics from playing out in the future. Another big pharma company cashing in, people becoming addicted and the weaponizing of stigma to blame the victims. How did our institutions fail? Who looked the other way all those years? Is it happening again with any other company?  I would imagine it would, because demonstrably, what they did worked. The organism does what has worked for the organism. This is how the big profits are made. Look at tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis as examples.

Perhaps the one thing that all these families want is a way to ensure that this never happens again. Just maybe, the egregious nature of this settlement hit a nerve in our federal government. Following a national letter writing campaign, on September 16th, the Justice Department filed an appeal seeking to block the travesty that is this bankruptcy plan.

Do we dare hope for a positive outcome?

3 thoughts on “The Opioid Settlement, Stigma, Disempowerment, and Nonconsensual Third-Party Releases

  1. Great article Bill. I’m totally incensed over this deal and I’m thrilled that the Department of Justice is appealing the settlement as are several other states. I’ve been involved since the beginning of the Sackler family’s involvement in creating the opioid epidemic. I’ve also spent many subsequent years witnessing the death and carnage as well as being involved in the treatment of many of the persons who became addicted to their product. Many switched to heroin when Purdue Pharma finally released a tamper resistant version of OxyContin, way too late. I’ve also worked with several families who have struggled to be helpful or who lost family members because of it. The marketing practices of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma were criminal and I am appalled that they continue to deny any responsibility for the devastation that they created. I am outraged, as are many others, and I agree with your assessment that there are different levels of justice in our society depending on how rich you are. It’s sickening. Thanks again for such an excellent article. I’m sure many of us, you and I included, will be following this in anticipation of hopeful justice for the many families who have lost loved ones and for the many thousands who continue to struggle with addiction to opioids.


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