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Nan Goldin leads a chant during a protest in the Metropolitan Museum’s Sackler Wing (photographs provided by Sandi Bachom)

On Monday, September 10, organizations P.A.I.N. Sackler, Queer Appalachia, and the Voices Project released a statement condemning Dr. Richard Sackler for his investment in the drug buprenorphine, considered a treatment for opioid addiction. Sackler is a member of the Sackler family, who are the primary owners of Purdue Pharma, the producer of the infamous opioid OxyContin which is known for its aggressively addictive quality (and for which buprenorphine is considered a treatment). Buprenorphine leads to lessened physical dependence, a milder withdrawal, and a lower potential for overdose.

Nan Goldin (P.A.I.N), Ryan Hampton (Voices Project), and Queer Appalachia penned the letter in response to the recent news that Richard Sackler and five other investors had signed onto a patent for a new form of the drug. Already existing in a film and pill form, the new proposed “wafer” is intended for faster ingestion to avoid smuggling or hoarding for resale. Buprenorphine is an opioid itself, so misuse is a common concern.

The group says, “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.” The group adamantly makes the claim: “Addiction affects many of us: buprenorphine should be freely available to all.”

P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) was spearheaded by artist Nan Goldin, best known for her The Ballad of Sexual Dependency series. After heroin use during her young adulthood, in 2014 she formed a three-year OxyContin addiction “overnight” after being prescribed the drug following surgery. She says she was not properly informed of the opioid’s highly addictive qualities (the drug is often compared to heroin).

Now, P.A.I.N. pressures Purdue Pharmaceuticals, owned by the descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, to take responsibility for their part in the opioid addiction endemic.

Their letter reads:

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.

In their letter, the activists conclude:

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.

… 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.

Sackler-branded pill bottles in the Sackler Wing’s reflecting pool at the Metropolitan Museum during a protest in March (photograph by Tim Davis)

In 2016, Forbes estimated the Sacklers combined wealth at $13 billion (most of which was accrued through drug production).

On September 9, the Financial Times revealed that the Sackler family owns a second drug production company: Rhodes Pharma. The small, lesser-known company based out of Rhode Island is one of the United States’s largest producers of generic opioids.

According to the Financial Times, the company was established in 2007, four months after Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal charges that it had mismarketed OxyContin. Rhodes Pharma is responsible for the production of other highly-addictive opioids including oxycodone, morphine, and hydrocodone.

The Sackler family often insists that OxyContin only accounts for 1.7 percent of opioid prescriptions in the country, but this revelation raises their stake to 6 percent. According to the Financial Times, the Rhodes-Purdue relationship places them at seventh among opioid makers by market share.

Over 1,000 pending lawsuits against Purdue Pharma currently exist. In June, the Massachusetts attorney-general filed a suit against eight members of the Sackler family, accusing them of a “deadly, deceptive scheme to sell opioids.” A survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Vital Statistics System says that opioid overdose kills over 115 people in the United States daily.

In their letter, the organizations demand, “ … addiction be treated not as a moral failing, but as a chronic illness like diabetes.” They say:

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 name is common among the art industry for their philanthropy — the drug makers funded the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing and the Guggenheim Museum’s Sackler Center for Arts Education. A list of institutions funded by the Sackler’s associated with Purdue Pharma was published on Hyperallergic in January 2018.

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Jasmine Weber

Jasmine Weber is Hyperallergic's news editor. She is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn, particularly interested in Black art histories and visual culture. She received her B.A. in Ethnic Studies...

5 replies on “Nan Goldin Releases Statement on the Sacklers’ Patent of “Anti-Opioid” Drug”

  1. Ironic little story..while in D.C. for my show last year @ Kaller Fine Arts, I wanted to see the Sackler Gallery, A cab took me over, and found it was closed for renovations..I then walked to Union Station to get my train back to NYC. On the walk, I tore my maniscus and was operated for it a few weeks later, then put on Tylenol 3, whose active ingredient is Oxycontin. Then found out about the Sackler’s connection to this opiod.I thought it was ironic that on my way to see this wealthy families collection, that ultimately I was put on the drug that led to their wealth! Julie Gross, NYC http://www.juliegross.net

    1. Does the Tylenol 3 contents label actually list OxiContin? A quick Google search says that “OxyContin is the brand name for a timed-release formula of oxycodone, a narcotic analgesic (medication that reduces pain).” Another search lists the following for Tylenol 3: Acetaminophen, Codiene, and Caffeine. Like oxycodone, codien is also a narcotic analgesic.

      Just saying: All goldfish are carp, but not all carp are goldfish, and I don’t know if the two narcotic analgesics are chemically the same.

  2. I am not a big fan of Nan Goldin, not because of the important issues she addresses (with which, for the most part, I agree), but because of the *way* she addresses them. For instance, disregarding the property of others (e.g., her protest of the MM’s Sackler Wing) is, in my opinion, simply wrong. In other words, it represents a kind of sloppy thinking.

    While Nan Goldin herself may not have single-handedly drafted the letter quoted above, it addresses an issue with which I am basically in agreement. And yet it is so sloppily written as to be, in some degree, self-defeating. Such thems as “bait and switch”, “gateway drug”, “insurmountable”, and “subsidized”, are highfalutin sounding, but they don’t quite fit the context in which they are used. Furthermore, the hyperbolic notion that “they can patent a funeral home next” is just plain silly, and silliness used when addressing a serious issue doesn’t fly with many of us —almost certainly not with the drug industry.

    But perhaps the most egregious example of sloppy thinking is in the sentence which reads, “The only thing that matters of course is that the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma, and other drug makers don’t benefit from such discoveries.” As the letter itself makes clear, benefiting from their discoveries most certainly is NOT “the only thing that matters”.

  3. They patent an addictive substance, and promote it as safe. Everyone hates them. Now they patent a substance that will help addicts, and everyone still hates them. When something is patented, does that preclude it being available for free? just asking.

  4. Those who read this, and want to comment, please friend me on my newer FB account
    Julie A. Gross, and THANKS!

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