”Dopesick” Takes On The Opioid Crisis

16:44 minutes

backlit white round opioid pills lying scattershot on a table
Credit: Shutterstock

The opioid epidemic has affected millions of people across the country—and more than 800,000 people are estimated to have died from an opioid overdose. At the root of this crisis is the painkiller Oxycontin, manufactured by Purdue Pharma. 

The company has made billions of dollars from the drug; but has also spent the better part of the last two decades fighting legal battles over its impacts, falsely arguing the drug is non-addictive and completely safe. Meanwhile, people from all walks of life, particularly in small towns across America, have been crippled by addiction to Oxycontin.

The limited series “Dopesick” traces the story of the opioid epidemic, from the creation of the Oxycontin pill to a landmark legal battle where Purdue Pharma admitted it misbranded the drug as being less addictive than other prescription opioids.

“Dopesick” follows a wide range of characters, from Purdue Pharma executives and federal prosecutors, to an Appalachian doctor and his pain-addled patients. Joining Ira to talk about bringing the show and its people to life is Danny Strong, creator and writer of “Dopesick,” joining from New York, New York.

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Segment Guests

Danny Strong

Danny Strong is creator and writer of “Dopesick.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The opioid epidemic has affected millions of people across the country. It’s estimated more than 800,000 have died from opioid overdoses. The drug OxyContin is at the root of this crisis.

Purdue Pharma, the company behind it, made billions from the drug. But it has also spent the better part of the last two decades fighting legal battles and falsely arguing the drug is nonaddictive and completely safe.

All the while, people from all walks of life were being crippled by addiction to OxyContin, particularly in small town America. The new limited series Dopesick traces the story of the opioid epidemic. And it follows a wide range of characters from Purdue Pharma executives and federal investigators to a rural doctor and his opioid-addicted patients.

SPEAKER: These people, my people trusted me.


I can’t believe how many of them are dead now.

IRA FLATOW: The eight episode series is airing now on Hulu. Joining me today is Danny Strong, creator and writer and showrunner, as they say, of Dopesick. He’s joining us from New York. Welcome to Science Friday.

DANNY STRONG: Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: You’re quite welcome. I know that the show is based on a book by Journalist Beth Macy called Dopesick– Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That [? Addled ?] America. How much did you pull from the book from making the show? And how closely did you work with Beth?

DANNY STRONG: So I love Beth Macy. She is a really wonderful person, incredible journalist, and wrote just a fantastic book. So she was very involved. She was in the writers room full time. She was a great member of the team. However, the goal of the project wasn’t to be truthful to the book Dopesick. I would say that the show, it’s sourced from a number of different books.

But the heart of the addiction stories, particularly the small town Finch Creek, her book really captured that energy and that story and that tragedy in a really profound detailed way. And so there’s certainly the inspiration of what her book set out to do is very much in the portrayal of Finch Creek and our characters that become addicted.

IRA FLATOW: I was way into the TV show Dopesick before I got to understand what the name dopesick means.

DANNY STRONG: Yeah, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Can you explain what it means?

DANNY STRONG: Sure. I mean, it’s a great title to her book. So someone who has opioid use disorder who is addicted to opioids. They feel a tremendous amount of pain when they are in need of their next fix. And that pain, that withdrawal pain or the fear of that withdrawal pain, that you know it’s coming, which can be so overwhelming, is called being dopesick. And so that’s where that term comes from.

IRA FLATOW: And at the center of the story, of course, is Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family. This legal saga has been going on for decades. So when did you first become interested in telling the story? And what was your motivation for that?

DANNY STRONG: Well, it was a producer. John Goldwyn came to me. And it was after The New Yorker article written by Patrick Radden Keefe that basically exploded the story of the Sackler family’s involvement with the opioid crisis.

The opioid crisis had certainly become famous at that point. But the Sackler family and the fact that they micromanaged Purdue Pharma that pled guilty to misbranding the drug and promoted and sold the drug is practically nonaddictive when that was very clearly not the case.

They had themselves hadn’t really become so well known as the family behind OxyContin. So that story really blew it up. It created a lot of interest in that. So that’s when I started researching it. And I called it the Purdue Pharma Rabbit Hole, that once you start reading about it in depth, you’re so stunned by what they did.

The fact that this national health crisis didn’t just organically happen. It’s not COVID-19 where a pandemic starts and spreads in some type of act of science or nature, right? It was manipulated, planned out, and executed in the most devious, deceptive manner. So devious and deceptive that they pled guilty to a federal crime for that very deception in 2007.

And then they would go on to ignore elements of that guilty plea, basically the oversight, and continue the exact same practices are such villainy to it. It’s shocking how villainous it is.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that that’s one of the things you learn from watching the series is many times, you think, well, when somebody fictionalizes the facts, they have to sensationalize it. But the facts are so terrifying. You didn’t really have to do much of that.

DANNY STRONG: No, no. The facts that we lay out in the show and basically each episode is centered around a different crime, a different deception or manipulation by Purdue. And what we cover in each episode, it’s basically Purdue Pharma 101.

It’s literally the simple facts of, OK, so this was a lie. They made this claim. And that claim was a lie because of this. It’s not even hyperbolic. It’s the bare minimum of what they said. And then we show you why that is completely untrue or manipulative or deceptive. And then we intercut it with the people that are suffering because of this deception which I think is part of the power of the show.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. One of the main characters is a doctor who prescribes OxyContin to his patients played by Michael Keaton. A young coal miner who gets addicted to the drug played by Kaitlyn Dever. A Purdue Pharma salesman played by Will Poulter. How much are these characters based on real people?

DANNY STRONG: All three of them are composite characters. They’re all based on just many different anecdotes. In the case of Michael Keaton’s character, Dr. Finnix, it’s really inspired by three different doctors that I had read about. One of them I had interviewed.

However, the more you read and the more you go down the rabbit hole that I discussed, there are so many doctors that go on the journey that his character ends up going on in the show. And then the other two characters too are based on just many different anecdotes. And I’d interviewed multiple former Purdue sales reps.

And in Kaitlyn’s character, I mean, there are just endless stories of the journey of addiction. And there’s a lot of similarities to these stories. A lot of sort of the same kind of events happen to people, particularly in Appalachia, not just during that time, but over the next two decades.

And I thought by creating a composite character, I could get in way more anecdotes, way more true stories as opposed if I was confined to just the facts of one person’s life. So that was the reason why I thought that could be not only more powerful as a composite character, but weirdly more truthful because I could get more true stories into the journey.

IRA FLATOW: I noticed that stylistically, there’s a lot of time-jumping in the show from when OxyContin was created to legal battles in 2000. You go back and forth in history. Why did you decide to tell the story this way instead of a linear fashion?

DANNY STRONG: Well, because if I told the story in a linear fashion, there would have been no TV show. The investigation, which began in 2002, wouldn’t have showed up until episode seven, right? So that means Peter Sarsgaard’s character and the US Attorney John Brownlee and Randy Ramseyer, they would have just showed up and all literally the last two episodes, maybe in the last three episodes.

So it would have been a completely different show that I don’t think would have had the dramatic tension the show has. Right now, we’re intercutting these two active investigations that took place in different time periods with the crimes and the victims that happen in a different time period. And the interweaving back and forth, I thought A, I don’t really have a choice because it’s the only way this will work. But it could be quite powerful.

I think that in which a time cut into a different time period could have its own emotional energy to it. And quite frankly, I’ve seen many shows and documentaries that have been doing this back and forth over the last five years. So I didn’t think the audience would have a problem.

IRA FLATOW: I guess that’s why you decided to focus on the early part of the crisis instead of what’s happening more recently because you would have to jump around and lose a whole bunch of stuff there.

DANNY STRONG: Well, to be honest with you, the origin story of the drug and the crimes that were committed to market and sell it and distribute it, that’s what I was interested in. To me, that’s the story is how did this company that was micromanaged by one family– how did they do this?

And I thought that the country needs to know exactly how they did it. And it’s incredibly disturbing and quite fascinating. So that was very much one of the main goals when I set out to begin this in the first place.

IRA FLATOW: And that is very much of the story. Is it not? It’s all in the family, so to speak. Isn’t it?

DANNY STRONG: Well, for years, the Sackler family would claim they were passive participants in Purdue Pharma, that they were just on the board. And then other people were running the company. And then sure enough, all their emails started coming out. Internal documents started coming out in discovery from all of the litigation. And that turned out to be yet another lie.

They weren’t passing participants. They were the participants. They micromanaged this company. And everyone that worked under them were, yeah, I don’t know. Second-class citizens is too hard a phrase for it. But they were clearly employees to the very small group of people running it.

And in the case of OxyContin, it really was Richard Sackler who was the godfather, the quarterback, the general. Whatever title you want to use, he was the one who was the driving force behind this drug. And then that’s just come out in all of the discovery of their internal documents.

IRA FLATOW: And you make the point. And you show very clearly how much greed– Sackler greed was at the center of this that just grow this company without regard for the people. It was hurting.

DANNY STRONG: Yeah, I mean, it’s the greed is so overwhelming that for me, I very much wanted to really try to explore what else was going on? Because Richard Sackler grew up wealthy. They were a rich family before OxyContin ever existed from this pharmaceutical company and from these other key investments that involved the pharmaceutical industry.

So what is it? What is driving this person? Is it literally just because he needs more money? What is it? I think that the greed element is stronger on some of the cousins that didn’t actually work at the company, that just wanted an in on–

There’s A shares and B shares. They were divided up into two factions. But the Mortimer side being the A shares. And the Raymond side being the B shares. So you definitely have this very dilettante piggy, piggy, piggy side. But in Richard’s case, he actually did the work. So what else is happening with him? And that’s one of the things we explore throughout the season.

IRA FLATOW: In September, there was a big news story that the Sackler family was granted a bankruptcy settlement which makes the family immune to future lawsuits. What was it like to see this news come in as you’re preparing to release your show?

DANNY STRONG: Yeah, the news on this family and on this company and this drug, it never stopped coming in. Beth Macy and I, we basically had an active investigation through the entire writing process and the entire production process that we were constantly doing interviews either together with sources or separately and then coming back to each other with what we got.

People were leaking us documents. They were leaking us emails. I would change scenes sometimes the day before I shot them because new information would come up at the last second. And in the case of the bankruptcy, it was occurring many years after when the show ends. The show ends basically in 2007.

I do this sort of archival, catch-up at the end. And I didn’t know what that was going to be. The bankruptcy is very disturbing for many, many reasons. But specifically because they’re going to have just as much money or if not more money once they’ve paid off the 4.5 billion because they can pay it off over a 10-year period.

So the yearly payments are less than the amount they’d be making in interest on their principal. And so it’s once again like, they just get away with it. And they always get away with it. And I know that activists are really starting to push for criminal investigation into certain members of the Sackler family.

I think there’s a feeling that’s enough is enough. Why hasn’t any of them been charged? They’ve had active investigations into them specifically at this point. Even the attorney general of Massachusetts said that she has seen the evidence and that there is enough evidence to charge some of them. And that’s also fired the activists up as well, that recent statement.

IRA FLATOW: This is Friday from WNYC Studios. Talking with Denny Strong, creator and writer of Dopesick. He’s joining us from New York. Did you find that as you got into the story and watched the news around it that you took this personally? I mean, did this become a personal crusade of yours to look for justice for all the people who were affected?

DANNY STRONG: Well, I took it personally when I first read about it back in 2018, because I don’t have addiction issues in my background. And I’m very fortunate for that. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have any family members or close friends that I’ve lost to addiction.

It wasn’t personal in that it had happened to me. It was personal in that it offended and enraged every ounce of my soul. I could not believe what they had done. And when I first started in on this in 2018, they had basically been exposed in the United States. OxyContin prescribing had gone way down in this country.

So what they were doing, according to The New Yorker article, was that they were using the same techniques that they had used here in other countries. And I just thought, wow, that is just the personification of evil that no matter how much damage and destruction they’ve caused here in the United States, they don’t care. And they’re moving on to do the exact same thing to other countries.

And I thought, I need to do this show as a warning to the rest of the world that Purdue Pharma is coming to addict you. They are coming to poison you and lie to you. And that was a big motivation for me in the early stages of this.

IRA FLATOW: Have you thought about another second season of Dopesick? Is there more you want to tell about the story?

DANNY STRONG: I think you could for sure. I mean, the show, like I said, ends in 2007. Sadly, the malfeasance and the criminal behavior and the villainy, it continued on. In fact, it continued on to such a profound extent that in 2020, Purdue Pharma had to plead guilty to two more felonies. And instead of $600 million in fines, it became $8.5 billion in fines.

I mean, this company is at its core, a criminal enterprise. People have referred to it as the mafia. And I think that’s very accurate. There are definitely a lot more stories post when our show ends. But I’m not sure. I think it’s we’re right now, we’re just seeing how we do and just getting through this phase of watching season one. And the goal never was to have a season two. It was designed as a limited series.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s a great show, Danny. It’s a great show. And I enjoying watching it. Thank you for taking time to be with us and for the work that you’re doing with the program.

DANNY STRONG: I really appreciate it. I really appreciate you covering it and putting a spotlight on it. So thank you. And thank you for everything you do on your program. I think it’s terrific.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Danny Strong, creator, writer, and showrunner of Dopesick. He’s joining us from New York. And you can watch Dopesick– highly recommend it– on Hulu.

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