The Deep, Dark Hole of Drug Addiction

By the time my dad retired, he had accumulated an impressive resumé… decorated World War II Marine, entrepreneur, founder, successful real estate developer, and loving husband and father.

But here’s the one thing he was that you couldn’t find on his resumé: addict.

One day, some 30 years before he passed away, he went to the doctor’s office seeking help for mild depression. He left with a bottle of pills. The next visit, he was given more powerful pills. The visit after, his dosage was increased again.

This pattern continued. In less than two years, he was hooked on some of the most powerful and addictive mood-elevating drugs of the time. I was in high school. I saw him descend into his own personal hell. He was a barely functioning addict, no longer able to work or do much of anything.

He was stuck in a very dark, deep hole, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. The years went by. I graduated from college. My dad wasn’t any better. Driving him to yet another visit to the doctor, I didn’t have much hope.

When the doctor ushered me into his office, I expected to hear the same old thing… “We can change his medication, see if it does any good.”

Instead, he said something completely unexpected. “I think you should let your father take a series of electroconvulsive therapy treatments.”

Ever since I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey), I considered electric shock a barbaric and crude form of treatment. It fried your brain and made you dumb and docile. No way was I putting my dad through that.

But then I did the research. And I found out that the treatment was far more advanced and refined than it was in Kesey’s day. As a family, and with a great deal of mixed emotions, we decided to go ahead with it. And it worked! Sort of. Short-term memory loss was minimal. Dad got better.

But it took five years to significantly ratchet down his drug dosages. He never fully got off them. But we’re incredibly grateful that for the majority of his last couple of decades he was happy and resembled his old self.

My dad’s addiction roiled our family. For years, nothing felt right. I’m telling you this because my memory of those years came flooding back to me as I researched the opioid crisis. I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of victims who became hooked on the opioid meds their doctors prescribed… and nothing but antipathy for the perpetrators of this deadly epidemic. 

Next week, the Early Investing team is publishing probably the most important report we’ve ever done. It’s an exposé on the opioid crisis. In it, we reveal how the crisis unfolded and offer some hopeful ideas for a post-opioid future.

The opioid crisis has taken 400,000 lives, and the epidemic isn’t over. The appalling toll will grow even bigger. Our research shows that Purdue Pharma, more than any other company, was responsible for launching this deadly epidemic.

While it sold “only” 2.28 billion pills, a paltry 3% of the 76 billion opioid pills doctors have prescribed, Purdue played a critical role in instigating the opioid crisis.

Purdue built its marketing campaign around a big lie: that addiction rates in patients were extremely low and that physicians who denied patients opioids were simply allowing their patients to suffer.

Brandeis University’s professor Andrew Kolodny, who was an expert witness in the recent Johnson & Johnson court trial, describes Purdue’s campaign of spreading disinformation this way…

We were hearing it from pain specialists who were getting paid by Purdue Pharma and other drug companies. We were hearing it from addiction specialists who were getting paid by the drug companies. We were hearing it from our professional societies. We were hearing it from our hospitals, which were regulated by the joint commission which was taking money from Purdue Pharma.

To bolster sales, Purdue engineered its highly addictive drugs to wear off quickly. And it worked. OxyContin became a blockbuster drug, generating $2.8 billion in revenue between 1995 and 2001. Cumulatively, it brought in $35 billion by 2017… but at a repugnantly high cost. In just the last five years, oxycodone and its cousin hydrocodone have killed an estimated 65,000 Americans (or more).

The Sackler family owns Purdue. Our research reveals a family that willingly and knowingly supported Purdue’s campaign of lies. In 2007, the company pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misleading doctors and the public about the safety and effectiveness of its drugs. It paid a $635 million fine, but no one served jail time. Then, between 2008 and 2016, the family paid itself more than $4.3 billion (according to a recent lawsuit). That estimate is probably too low. Oregon’s attorney general says the family took $11 billion out of the company.

Purdue now faces more than 2,600 federal and state lawsuits. Under a recent settlement agreement, the company agreed to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, turn itself into a public benefit trust and provide plaintiffs with $3 billion.

That’s not nearly enough. This deeply flawed agreement should be thrown into the garbage.

In the meantime, the Sacklers were hoping to buy goodwill through their philanthropic contributions… much of it going to universities and museums. Kolodny argues that the Yales and Oxfords of the world should give the money back.

I have a better idea. Give the money to local groups working with opioid addicts. Or use it to research nonaddictive pain medication. Or fund the research and development of probably the most promising and proven nonaddictive painkiller available right now: cannabidiol, or CBD.

CBD is already helping us make the transition from addictive opioids to something far healthier and effective. As more states approve its use, its beneficial properties will become better researched and known. And demand will mushroom.

In addition to our exposé, we’re publishing a report on the five cannabis companies most likely to grow into dominant CBD players and drive the Sacklers (and other opioid manufacturers) out of business. So keep an eye on your inbox. We’ll send you a note about the report early next week.