Purdue Pharma Knew About Oxy Misuse Early On, Report Finds

By Kelly Burch 07/23/18

The report also alleges that in 1999 company officials learned of a call to a pharmacy describing “OxyContin as the hottest thing on the street—forget Vicodin.”

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Purdue Pharma reportedly knew that the opioid pill OxyContin was being snorted and sold on the street as early as 1999, just three years after the medication's release.

However, the company reportedly kept quiet about this knowledge and continued marketing the drug as a safer pain-relief pill.

The New York Times obtained a confidential Justice Department report that was compiled in the early 2000s, leading up to Purdue’s settlement with the federal government in 2007.

Purdue executives have testified in Congress that they did now know that the product was being abused until the United States attorney in Maine issued a warning in 2000. 

“Everyone was taken by surprise by what happened,” Purdue’s top medical officer, Dr. Paul D. Goldenheim, testified in 2001. “We launched OxyContin in 1996, and for the first four years on the market, we did not hear of any particular problem.” 

However, the Justice Department report shows that this is not true.  

“We have in fact picked up references to abuse of our opioid products on the internet,” Purdue Pharma’s general counsel, Howard R. Udell, wrote in early 1999 to another company official.

The report also alleges that in 1999 company officials learned of a call to a pharmacy describing “OxyContin as the hottest thing on the street—forget Vicodin.”

Federal prosecutors also found the words “street value,” “crush,” or “snort” in 117 internal notes that recorded meetings between Purdue representatives and doctors before 2000.

The report’s findings were so alarming that prosecutors recommended that felony charges be brought against three of Purdue’s executives. However, Justice Department officials under George W. Bush did not support that and ended up brokering a settlement in 2007 that avoided felony criminal charges and allowed Purdue to continue selling OxyContin. 

Now, some people see this as a missed opportunity. 

“It would have been a turning point,” said Terrance Woodworth, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official who investigated Purdue Pharma in the early 2000s. “It would have sent a message to the entire drug industry.”

However, another former DEA official told The New York Times that U.S. Attorney John Brownlee ultimately felt that accepting a deal would be best because Purdue had so many resources available to aid in its defense, including the expertise of Rudy Giuliani, who helped craft the deal for Purdue. 

“He told me he was outgunned,” Joseph Rannazzisi said. 

Brownlee has said that he felt the deal reached in 2007 was appropriate, but that he thought it would trigger tighter oversight of Purdue, something that did not happen. 

“I didn’t feel as a lawyer I could be in a position to bar anyone from getting OxyContin. Faced with that decision, I was just simply not prepared to take it off the market. I didn’t feel like that was my role,” he said. “My role was to address prior criminal conduct. Hold them accountable. Fine them. Make sure the public knew what they did.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.