It's impressive what people start paying attention to when you have a drug crisis that starts killing a bunch of Midwestern white folks in small-town America. The opioid crisis continues to burn through cities across flyover country, and it got its start with OxyContin, that you know. What you didn't know is that the empire behind the most addictive drug in history is actually one multi-billionaire family, effectively the richest legal drug cartel family on earth.
The newly installed Sackler Courtyard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most glittering places in the developed world. Eleven thousand white porcelain tiles, inlaid like a shattered backgammon board, cover a surface the size of six tennis courts. According to the V&A’s director, the regal setting is intended to serve as a “living room for London,” by which he presumably means a living room for Kensington, the museum’s neighborhood, which is among the world's wealthiest. In late June, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was summoned to consecrate the courtyard, said to be the earth's first outdoor space made of porcelain; stepping onto the ceramic expanse, she silently mouthed, “Wow.”
The Sackler Courtyard is the latest addition to an impressive portfolio. There’s the Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the majestic Temple of Dendur, a sandstone shrine from ancient Egypt; additional Sackler wings at the Louvre and the Royal Academy; stand-alone Sackler museums at Harvard and Peking Universities; and named Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, the Serpentine, and Oxford’s Ashmolean. The Guggenheim in New York has a Sackler Center, and the American Museum of Natural History has a Sackler Educational Lab. Members of the family, legendary in museum circles for their pursuit of naming rights, have also underwritten projects of a more modest caliber—a Sackler Staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; a Sackler Escalator at the Tate Modern; a Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens. A popular species of pink rose is named after a Sackler. So is an asteroid.
The Sackler name is no less prominent among the emerald quads of higher education, where it’s possible to receive degrees from Sackler schools, participate in Sackler colloquiums, take courses from professors with endowed Sackler chairs, and attend annual Sackler lectures on topics such as theoretical astrophysics and human rights. The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science supports research on obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, the Sackler institutes at Cornell, Columbia, McGill, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sussex, and King’s College London tackle psychobiology, with an emphasis on early childhood development.
The Sacklers’ philanthropy differs from that of civic populists like Andrew Carnegie, who built hundreds of libraries in small towns, and Bill Gates, whose foundation ministers to global masses. Instead, the family has donated its fortune to blue-chip brands, braiding the family name into the patronage network of the world’s most prestigious, well-endowed institutions. The Sackler name is everywhere, evoking automatic reverence; the Sacklers themselves, however, are rarely seen.
The descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, a pair of psychiatrist brothers from Brooklyn, are members of a billionaire clan with homes scattered across Connecticut, London, Utah, Gstaad, the Hamptons, and, especially, New York City. It was not until 2015 that they were noticed by Forbes, which added them to the list of America’s richest families. The magazine pegged their wealth, shared among twenty heirs, at a conservative $14 billion. (Descendants of Arthur Sackler, Mortimer and Raymond’s older brother, split off decades ago and are mere multi-millionaires.) To a remarkable degree, those who share in the billions appear to have abided by an oath of omertà: Never comment publicly on the source of the family’s wealth.
That may be because the greatest part of that $14 billion fortune tallied by Forbes came from OxyContin, the narcotic painkiller regarded by many public-health experts as among the most dangerous products ever sold on a mass scale. Since 1996, when the drug was brought to market by Purdue Pharma, the American branch of the Sacklers’ pharmaceutical empire, more than two hundred thousand people in the United States have died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription painkillers. Thousands more have died after starting on a prescription opioid and then switching to a drug with a cheaper street price, such as heroin. Not all of these deaths are related to OxyContin—dozens of other painkillers, including generics, have flooded the market in the past thirty years. Nevertheless, Purdue Pharma was the first to achieve a dominant share of the market for long-acting opioids, accounting for more than half of prescriptions by 2001.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, fifty-three thousand Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016, more than the thirty-six thousand who died in car crashes in 2015 or the thirty-five thousand who died from gun violence that year. This past July, Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, declared that opioids were killing roughly 142 Americans each day, a tally vividly described as “September 11th every three weeks.” The epidemic has also exacted a crushing financial toll: According to a study published by the American Public Health Association, using data from 2013—before the epidemic entered its current, more virulent phase—the total economic burden from opioid use stood at about $80 billion, adding together health costs, criminal-justice costs, and GDP loss from drug-dependent Americans leaving the workforce. Tobacco remains, by a significant multiple, the country’s most lethal product, responsible for some 480,000 deaths per year. But although billions have been made from tobacco, cars, and firearms, it’s not clear that any of those enterprises has generated a family fortune from a single product that approaches the Sacklers’ haul from OxyContin.
Even so, hardly anyone associates the Sackler name with their company’s lone blockbuster drug. “The Fords, Hewletts, Packards, Johnsons—all those families put their name on their product because they were proud,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine who has written extensively about the opioid crisis. “The Sacklers have hidden their connection to their product. They don’t call it ‘Sackler Pharma.’ They don’t call their pills ‘Sackler pills.’ And when they’re questioned, they say, ‘Well, it’s a privately held firm, we’re a family, we like to keep our privacy, you understand.’ ”
To the extent that the Sacklers have cultivated a reputation, it’s for being earnest healers, judicious stewards of scientific progress, and connoisseurs of old and beautiful things. Few are aware that during the crucial period of OxyContin’s development and promotion, Sackler family members actively led Purdue’s day-to-day affairs, filling the majority of its board slots and supplying top executives. By any assessment, the family’s leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling OxyContin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and the second have nothing to do with one another.
There's no racket quite like the legalized drug industry, is there?