In Newly Released Deposition, OxyContin Owner Defends Response to Reports of Abuse

Richard Sackler, an owner of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP, received an email from a friend in 2002 detailing what the friend called some “items of interest.”

The friend, an anesthesiologist, mentioned that his local pharmacy had spent $12,000 on remodeling to increase security because of OxyContin, the powerful opioid painkiller. The friend recounted that he had recently spoken to a student at an exclusive private high school who said someone had tried to sell her the “designer drug” OxyContin in the campus halls.

“I hate to say this, but you could become the Pablo Escobar of the new millennium,” the friend wrote, referring to the Colombian drug lord.

The email is included in a deposition of Dr. Sackler taken this year as part of litigation brought by states and local municipalities seeking to hold Purdue accountable for the opioid crisis. Parts of the 460-page document, recently made public and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, have been redacted.

Dr. Sackler, the 74-year-old son of one of three brothers who founded the company, hasn’t spoken publicly as lawsuits have piled up against Purdue and as cultural institutions have shunned involvement with the philanthropic family. Purdue and family members, including Dr. Sackler, named in the lawsuits dispute that they are to blame for the broader opioid crisis and are fighting the claims.

The March deposition offers a rare window into Dr. Sackler’s current views on the opioid epidemic and the line he draws between what he calls real patients and addicts. It shows an aging Dr. Sackler at times forgetful: There were dozens of instances in which he said he didn’t recall the answer to a question. At other times, he was exacting in his defense of Purdue.

Dr. Sackler and Purdue on Saturday said in statements the deposition shows the company responded to evidence of widespread abuse and diversion. That included working with public-health authorities, enacting more than 65 initiatives and spending $1.5 billion to abate the problem.

Plaintiffs attorneys Linda Singer and Paul Hanly questioned Dr. Sackler for hours over two days in early March, seeking to pin down when he learned OxyContin was being abused and what, if anything, he did to try to stop it.

Asked if the 2002 email from his friend, coming six years after OxyContin’s launch, made him think he should change anything, Dr. Sackler responded that, while a single incident could serve as an alert, “I was trained not to chase what could be random events.” He said he believes Purdue at the time was helping pharmacies improve their security and had programs in place in high schools, but he said “my recollection is vague.”

After presenting Dr. Sackler with emails showing he often asked Purdue staff for sales data, Ms. Singer asked if he ever requested data on OxyContin abuse or overdose rates. “I don’t recall that,” he said.

Throughout the deposition, Dr. Sackler said the company had programs in place to respond to reports of abuse. Saturday’s statement from Dr. Sackler’s lawyer said the initiatives included supporting a prescription-drug monitoring program and partnering with groups on substance-abuse education.

A trained physician, Dr. Sackler served as Purdue’s president from 1999 to 2003 and remained on the board until last year.

In May 2000, Purdue executive Michael Friedman sent an email describing a cluster of reports from Ohio about a man robbing pharmacies for OxyContin.

“I hate this,” Dr. Sackler responded. “This will feed on itself. Doesn’t this guy rob Dilaudid and other opioids?” Asked about that email in March, Dr. Sackler said what he meant was, “I hate the abuse, even though it was recognized by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] to be a risk and called out in the package insert.”

Attorneys presented to him an earlier example of when he was told about potential problems, a 1999 email describing an online message board where addicts talked about ways to abuse OxyContin. Ms. Singer asked if he was aware sales representatives used the words “street value,” “crush” or “snort” more than 100 times in sales calls from 1997 to 1999. “I don’t think I was aware of it,” he said. “No, I’m quite sure I wasn’t.”

Mr. Friedman was one of three executives who pleaded guilty in 2007, along with the company, to criminal charges of misleading the public about OxyContin’s addiction risks. The company and the executives paid a collective $634.5 million in penalties and costs.

Three years after the guilty plea, Purdue introduced a tamper-resistant formulation of OxyContin, which Mr. Sackler said in the deposition cost about a billion dollars to develop.

During the interview, Dr. Sackler told attorneys that his memory had become spotty after three strokes he suffered several years ago and that he had anemia because of internal bleeding. He mentioned he had poor hearing and several times during questioning said it was time to change the batteries on his hearing aids.

The deposition is being used by attorneys pressing some 1,700 cases on behalf of cities, counties and Native American tribes that have been consolidated in federal court in Cleveland. It is also being used by state attorneys general separately pursuing actions.

About 400,000 people in the U.S. died between 1999 to 2017 from prescription and illegal opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The two branches of the Sackler family that own Purdue Pharma have made billions of dollars in profits from the company, earlier court filings show. In 2015, Forbes estimated the family was worth $14 billion. Asked about the figure, Dr. Sackler said in the deposition that the Forbes number “is likely to be considerably higher” than the family’s value today.

Dr. Sackler at one point disputed a suggestion that he had contempt for addicts, explaining his view is that “they often become addicted because they’re in miserable circumstances.” He said: “I feel bad that there are lots of miserable and or depressed people.”

Write toSara Randazzo at [email protected]

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