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Why Didn't One Presidential Candidate Stop Purdue Pharma's OxyContin Express in 2002?
The Question Someone Should Ask Asa Hutchinson at Wednesday's Republican Debate
The discussions at Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee will largely be about the absent Donald Trump and subjects important to Republican primary voters. Opinion polls list one of the top issues as the lethal opioid crisis, especially that fentanyl is now the #1 killer of Americans and is pouring over the southern border.
The fentanyl epidemic, however, might not have existed if the groundwork had not been set with Purdue Pharma’s blockbuster opioid painkiller, OxyContin, and the lethal opioid crisis it triggered.
Asa Hutchinson is the only candidate who once had a chance early on to possibly stop the opioid crisis in its tracks. And he did not. I hope one of the FOX debate hosts, or his fellow contenders, will finally confront him about that missed opportunity.
I reported the background to this in my book, PHARMA. For those not familiar with it, in December 2001, Asa Hutchinson was the head of the DEA. The drug agency had just begun to focus on the problem of OxyContin being diverted to the black market. There were reports of rising abuse and overdose deaths.
The DEA’s point person was Laura Nagel, a 22-year veteran who was the second in charge of the Office of Diversion Control (the Edie character, played by Uzi Aduba, in Netflix’s Painkiller, is loosely based on Nagel).
Nagel was convinced that Purdue Pharma was not doing nearly enough to stop OxyContin reaching the black market. Purdue could not account for batches of pills made at a manufacturing plant in Totowa, New Jersey.
In April 2002, Nagel and some of her DEA team, met with Richard Sackler, as well as Purdue’s Chief Financial Officer, its general counsel, and the company’s medical director. Nagel presented evidence that abuse of OxyContin had spiraled since the drug had gone on sale in 1996.
At one stage, Nagel told Richard Sackler: “People are dying. Do you understand that?”
That meeting ended in a stalemate.
Later that month, Nagel again met with Purdue executives and this time was joined by Deborah Leiderman, the FDA’s director for controlled substances in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.
Nagel hoped the FDA would use its authority as the nation’s drug regulator to restrict how OxyContin was dispensed. The FDA had previously done that for barbiturates, amphetamines, and benzodiazepines; the diversion of each of those had led to widespread drug abuse. Leiderman had no interest in recommending that the FDA put any restrictions on OxyContin prescriptions.
As I report in PHARMA, “A retired DEA officer familiar with what transpired next told the author that Nagel and Gauvin [a DEA pharmacologist] were so incensed by Leiderman’s intervention on the side of Purdue that they discussed whether she might have sabotaged their investigation. They had no evidence of any wrongdoing and did not think she was in Purdue’s pocket. Instead, they wondered if it was Leiderman’s way of pushing back against the DEA for overreaching its authority by seeking prescription restrictions.”
A month later, the Sackler family hired “America’s mayor” to represent Purdue Pharma. Rudy Giuliani had opened Giuliani Partners, a consulting firm, only a few months earlier. He was riding high from his two terms as New York’s mayor. He had been widely praised for his calm leadership after the 9/11 terror attacks; Time had named him Man of the Year and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth had given him an honorary knighthood.
As a former United States attorney for the prestigious Southern District of New York, Giuliani offered high-level access and influence. He was friendly with many top-ranking Justice Department officials. As for Asa Hutchinson, the Drug Enforcement Administration director, the duo had known each other for twenty years.
Maybe, thought the Sacklers, Giuliani might find a way to put a check on an investigation opened recently by a West Virginia U.S. Attorney. And, Purdue told him, it wanted him to extinguish the brewing DEA firestorm in Washington.
Purdue Pharma was the ex-mayor’s first major client. (While the fee agreement remains a secret since both Purdue and Giuliani Partners refuse to disclose it, litigation documents produced later by Purdue reveal it was paying about $3 million a month to its team of high-powered attorneys). It could certainly afford it. OxyContin was bringing in $30 million a week, about 90 percent of Purdue’s profits.
When Laura Nagel heard the news about Giuliani’s retainer, she said, “My reaction was that they went around me. They went and got Rudy.… They thought they were buying access and insight into how to manage things politically.”
Giuliani assigned New York’s former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, who had joined Giuliani Partners, to conduct a security appraisal of the New Jersey manufacturing plant where unaccounted-for Oxy had attracted Nagel’s attention.
Giuliani set an August meeting with the DEA.
“The mayor and I met with Asa Hutchinson, the director of the DEA; his staff; and people from Purdue [general counsel Udell],” Kerik told New York Magazine. Karen Tandy, the associate attorney general responsible for Drug Enforcement oversight, also attended.
“We don’t want Purdue put in a position where it winds up being taken over by the courts,” said Kerik. “Or they get put out of business. What I’d like to see come out of this is we set model security standards for the industry.”
A week before the first 9/11 anniversary, Giuliani joined Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General John Ashcroft at the opening of a DEA exhibit about terrorism and drug trafficking. Giuliani gave a short speech that raised $20,000 for the DEA’s Museum Foundation. When he finished, Hutchinson asked Laura Nagel to set a meeting with the ex-mayor.
A week later, Asa Hutchinson and Laura Nagel were in Giuliani’s twenty-fourth-floor office overlooking Times Square. A Purdue OxyContin team Giuliani had created ran through a thirty-minute PowerPoint designed “to keep OxyContin out of the wrong hands.” They emphasized that Oxy was “a good drug” and claimed they were doing all they could to spot abuse and diversion.
The DEA pair said little. “We were receivers of the information,” Hutchinson later said.
Nagel was anxious to return to headquarters. When she did, colleagues recall that she railed against that “dog and pony show.”
Laura Nagel had built a damning case against the cavalier way Purdue Pharma handled the manufacturing of a controlled substance. Over two years, she initiated several hundred OxyContin abuse and diversion cases connected to Purdue. Giuliani, however, had managed to make certain Purdue faced only civil charges. Purdue ultimately paid a $2 million civil penalty for its security lapses that allowed the drug to be diverted to the black market. By then, OxyContin sales were up twentyfold since its 1996 introduction; it was on its way to $2 billion that year in sales. Two million dollars was not an insignificant amount, but it was, as one Purdue executive boasted, “less than a day’s [OxyContin] revenue.”
Why didn’t Asa Hutchinson listen to Laura Nagel and use the DEA’s full enforcement power against Purdue and Oxy? It is a question never satisfactorily answered by Hutchinson or Giuliani. Maybe Wednesday, somebody can finally put Hutchinson on the spot and get an answer in front of millions of viewers on live television. It’s about time.