Roughly five years before the opioid addiction crisis reached peak levels, Rudy Giuliani may have influenced a decision to allow a major opioid manufacturer to avoid felony charges.
Last week, Senators Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) both wrote a letter inquiring about President Trump’s lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and his potential conflict of interest in a 2007 settlement that OxyContin (the brand name for Oxycodone) manufacturer Purdue Pharma reached with the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The letter, which was addressed to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), pointed out that while Giuliani’s firm (Giuliani Partners) was working on a $1 million with the DOJ and the DEA to re-organize its drug investigations, his firm was also simultaneously representing Purdue.
“The United States continues to combat the worst drug overdose epidemic in our history,” Sens. Hassan and Whitehouse wrote. “[DOJ and] DEA officials may have agreed to an inappropriately lenient treatment of Purdue Pharma simply because it was represented by Mr. Giuliani. The public health consequences of that decision may have been immense, and deserve greater scrutiny by Congress, [DOJ], and DEA.”
At the time, Purdue Pharma was under fire for deceptively marketing OxyContin by downplaying its addictive qualities. As Grit Post previously reported, Purdue executives knew as early as 1999 that people were becoming addicted to OxyContin at abnormally high rates, but kept that information from doctors being asked to prescribe their product to patients.
Prosecutors working under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez recommended felony indictments for Purdue’s top lawyer and chief executives. However, the DOJ — with assistance from Giuliani’s firm — ended up accepting one single guilty plea from Purdue Frederick (the holding company for Purdue) for “misbranding.” No executives went to jail, and the case was closed after the company paid $634 million in fines.
The light punishment for Purdue came just before the opioid addiction crisis reached epidemic levels. In the years following the company’s settlement with the DOJ, the number opioid-based painkiller prescriptions skyrocketed. According to IMS Health’s market research, opioid prescriptions went from 112 million in 1992 to 282 million by 2012. The DEA estimates that there were nearly 59 million prescriptions filled for Oxycodone by 2013, just six years after Giuliani Partners worked with the DOJ and DEA.
A primer on OxyContin by The Recovery Village (a rehabilitation center) described the high from OxyContin as similar to heroin, and that many addicts develop a tolerance to the drug. This means the chance of a lethal overdose becomes much higher — particularly because it’s more widely available as a legal pharmaceutical drug.
Opioid drugs are highly addictive. Prescription variants are no safer than illicit heroin. In fact, because of its legality, overdose is far more common for drugs like OxyContin than it is for heroin. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy reports 3,635 people died as the result of a heroin overdose in 2012 across 28 reporting states, compared to 9,869 people who died from prescription opioids.
Opioid-related overdose deaths are so common that they now rival the number of firearm-related deaths in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in 2016, more than 42,000 people died from opioids. That same year, 38,000 people died from gun violence (including suicides). That trend continued in 2017, with approximately 72,000 deaths attributed to accidental opioid overdoses, according to the CDC. Even when accounting for approximately 22,000 firearm-related suicides, the number of gun deaths in America last year doesn’t even come close to that number.
Sens. Hassan and Whitehouse gave the DOJ and DEA until September 21 to respond to their inquiry.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.