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The Weekly | A Secret Opioid Memo That Could Have Slowed an Epidemic

Episode 10: ‘The Memo’

Producer/Director John Pappas

A confidential government document containing evidence so critical it had the potential to change the course of an American tragedy was kept in the dark for more than a decade. The document, known as a “prosecution memo,” details how government lawyers believed that Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful opioid, OxyContin, knew early on that the drug was fueling a rise in abuse and addiction. They also gathered evidence indicating that the company’s executives had misled the public and Congress.

“The Weekly” shines a light on that 2006 Justice Department memo and its consequences for today’s wave of lawsuits against opioid makers and members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma. We go with Barry Meier, the New York Times reporter who for two decades has chronicled how opioid abuse has ravaged America, as he travels back to where the crisis began.

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Featured Reporter

Barry Meier covered business, public policy, health and safety for nearly 30 years for The New York Times. He began covering the marketing of the painkiller OxyContin and the resulting epidemic of opioid addiction as early as 2001. He is also the author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic,” first published in 2003 and recently reissued.

The Activists Who Called Out the Early Stages of the Opioid EpidemicRead Barry Meier’s report from Pennington Gap, Virginia. A Nun, a Doctor and a Lawyer — and Deep Regret Over the Nation’s Handling of OpioidsAug 18, 2019Show Notes

Behind-the-scenes commentary from “The Weekly” producers.

Slide 1 of 7 ImageCreditCreditKen Druckerman for The New York Times

Paul Pelletier, right, speaks on the record for the first time about the decision 12 years ago not to pursue felony charges against Purdue Pharma executives. He tells Barry that he first learned about a closed-door meeting that Justice Department officials had with Purdue’s lawyers when one of the prosecutors on the case angrily protested the meeting.

CreditKen Druckerman for The New York TimesImageCreditCreditMadeline Rosenberg for The New York Times

The photographer Nan Goldin led a protest in April outside the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington. She has organized several protests against the Sackler family, urging museums and cultural institutions to sever ties with the Sacklers, longtime benefactors of museums in Washington, New York and elsewhere. 

CreditMadeline Rosenberg for The New York TimesImageCreditCreditJohn Pappas for The New York Times

One challenge for our episode was how to turn a document into a character. We wanted to present the confidential Justice Department memo from 2006, the basis of Barry’s investigation for “The Weekly,” as a character in the story, not just text on screen.

CreditJohn Pappas for The New York TimesImageCreditCreditJohn Pappas for The New York Times

Our team films in the federal courthouse in Abingdon, Va. We wanted to recreate the feeling of the 2007 sentencing hearing by going to the courtroom where the hearing took place.

CreditJohn Pappas for The New York TimesImageCreditCreditJohn Pappas for The New York Times

The former assistant U.S. attorney Rick A. Mountcastle discusses his four-year investigation of Purdue Pharma, but he’s barred from talking about the confidential information contained in the prosecution memo that his team wrote.

CreditJohn Pappas for The New York TimesImageCreditCreditJohn Pappas for The New York Times

Southwestern Virginia is far from the interstate highways that traffic illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin. That’s one reason the region was an early hotspot for painkiller abuse — prescription medications were often the only way residents here encountered drug use.

CreditJohn Pappas for The New York TimesImageCreditCreditMadeline Rosenberg for The New York Times

Andreas Burgess, the director of photography for our episode, shooting outside the Department of Justice in Washington.

CreditMadeline Rosenberg for The New York Times1/7No Pre-Reading, No Rehearsing: How ‘The Weekly’ Kept Its Recreation of Historic Opioid Testimony AuthenticAug 18, 2019The Confidential Memo Revealed

Prosecutors cited evidence in their 2006 memo that Sackler family members who own Purdue were sent reports about problems with the company’s drugs. But that evidence never came to light because the recommended felony charges against Purdue executives never went forward.

Instead, three executives, under a deal with the government, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that did not accuse them of wrongdoing. They had insisted they did nothing wrong, and the company denied there was a cover-up, saying that executives did not learn of problems with OxyContin until 2000. Prosecutors, in their memo, did not accuse the Sacklers of any wrongdoing and Dr. Richard Sackler has since testified he was unaware of any illegal activities at Purdue.

What follows are annotated excerpts from that memo used in reporting for this episode of “The Weekly.”

Advanced Warning

Prosecutors wrote that Purdue covered up OxyContin’s early abuse. Its executives said they only learned about the problem in early 2000.



Dr. Sackler apparently pushed in 1997, prosecutors wrote, for videos promoting OxyContin in response to “concerns raised about the abuse potential.”


Potential for Abuse

Prosecutors believed that Purdue had concealed widespread abuse of OxyContin’s predecessor drug, MS Contin. It too was a long-acting opioid, a formulation that Purdue claimed made OxyContin less prone to abuse.


Internet Chatter

Dr. Sackler was sent an email in 1999, prosecutors found, that discussed how people in internet chat rooms were talking about snorting OxyContin.

ImageCredit Where Are They Now?ImageCreditThe Weekly/The New York Times/FX/Hulu

Rick Mountcastle, who led the Justice Department investigation into Purdue Pharma, moved from the Abingdon, Va., office to Roanoke after that case in 2007. He continued as an assistant U.S. attorney, and served for 15 months as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia until President Trump appointed a new U.S. attorney in 2018. Mountcastle retired from the Justice Department last December.

ImageCreditThe Weekly/The New York Times/FX/Hulu

Paul Pelletier, a former deputy chief of the fraud section at the criminal division of the Justice Department, left the government in 2011 and is a lawyer in private practice in Northern Virginia. He ran for Congress in 2018 as a Democrat in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, but lost in the primary.

ImageCreditThe Weekly/The New York Times/FX/Hulu

Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, leads one of the many lawsuits filed against Purdue, its executives and members of the Sackler family. Earlier this year, she released emails from 2001 in which Dr. Richard Sackler blamed drug abusers for the company’s problems. “We have to hammer on the abusers in every possible way,” Sackler wrote. Two weeks ago, Purdue’s lawyers asked a judge in Massachusetts to dismiss the case.

The Sackler family purchased the company that would become Purdue Pharma in the 1950s, and some of the family’s heirs, who made a fortune from sales of OxyContin, are now defendants in lawsuits brought against the company for its role in fueling the opioid epidemic. The Sacklers have donated generously to museums around the world, but some of those institutions — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York, the Tate museums in London, and the Louvre in Paris — have sought to sever ties with the family.

Complete Coverage

Negotiations over a potential settlement between states and cities trying to contend with an epidemic of opioid abuse and the drugmakers who helped feed the epidemic has stalled.

The seeds of today’s epidemic were planted when Purdue introduced OxyContin and marketed the powerful drug as a treatment for all kinds of pain. Barry reported on evidence indicating that the company’s executives knew about the drug’s growing abuse much earlier than they said.

A sealed 2015 deposition by Richard Sackler of Purdue Pharma appears to be inconsistent with evidence contained in the 2006 Justice Department memo.

During his reporting on the memo, Barry was stunned to find his own name included in the confidential document.

Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids. States and cities continue to file a wave of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Director of Photography: Andreas Burgess
Additional Cinematography: Vanessa Carr
Video Editor: Pierre Takal
Senior Story Editors: Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Associate Producer: Madeline Rosenberg


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