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The Sackler Cartel

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Sackler featured

Continuing our series exploring Jews & Crime, Nathan Abrams reviews a fascinating new book about how the Sackler family amassed its fortune. 

Pill bottles were thrown by protesters into a pool below a sculpture by Xu Bing at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC on 26 April 2018 © Via Twitter @gohedgeclippers

Generally, when one thinks of drug pushers, one thinks of the illicit drug trade between Latin America and the United States. One might picture the Mexican and Columbian drug cartels in particular. Someone like Pablo Escobar. Or dealers pushing their products on the streets of Baltimore as depicted so notably in The Wire. One does not imagine a family of prominent Jewish philanthropists with an impeccable reputation.  

But a dynasty of wealthy Jewish billionaires whose names grace art galleries, universities and other institutions all over the Western world have also been responsible for an international epidemic of drug addiction that has killed nearly half a million people. 

Patrick Radden Keefe

They are the Sackler family whose fortune was made by manufacturing and marketing Valium and OxyContin. The latter was the blockbuster painkiller that became the catalyst for the opioid crisis in which more Americans have died than in all the conflicts since 1945. 

This is the griping story of the Sacklers as told by Patrick Radden Keefe in his new book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.

Like so many immigrant stories, the beginnings of the Sackler family were humble. Raymond, Mortimer and Arthur were the sons of Isaac and Sophie (née Greenberg), Jewish grocers who came to New York from Ukraine and Poland before World War I. Born in Brooklyn, the three boys weathered antisemitism and the Great Depression to quality as doctors at a time when there were quotas on Jews entering the medical profession. While Arthur, the eldest qualified at NYU, Raymond and Mortimer had to train in Glasgow owing to the lack of places for Jews in the United States.  

The family fortune germinated when Arthur, working simultaneously as a doctor and in advertising, came up with the plan on how to sell Valium. This involved co-opting doctors, influencing regulators and downplaying the drug’s addictive properties. He then bought the drug manufacturer, Purdue Frederick, which would be run by his brothers. Arthur’s marketing ability was then applied by his brothers to a far more potent painkiller: OxyContin. It went on to generate some $30 billion in revenue despite the fact it was killing thousands through addiction.  

As their wealth grew, the brothers became increasingly greedy, buying property, art and a succession of wives. Their offspring and their children grew up in luxury. The Sackler family donated objects and vast sums to the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, Tate Modern the Smithsonian, and Harvard and Oxford Universities. Their name was everywhere – much to the embarrassment of the recipients of their riches when the true source of their wealth was known.  

This wasn’t an attempt to launder their cash, to whitewash their name, for the source of it was not widely known. The Sackler brothers were vague and shadowy about what they did, aiming to preserve the good name of their family, as well as to keep pushing product even as they were presented with evidence of what it did. The Hippocratic Oath seemed not to apply.  

Richard Sackler, son of Raymond, comes across as a particularly heartless individual. Despite having trained as a doctor, his lavish lifestyle kept him insulated from the world. When he assumed control of Purdue, he was the sort of boss who when his dog defecated on the plush royal purple carpet of Purdue’s head office, he left it for someone else to clean it up.   

Protests in Paris.

Where drug dealers like Pablo Escobar end up in prison or dead, the Sackler family has kept its cash and freedom. Its reputation may have been tarnished but the moral of this story is that the peddling of (prescription) drugs does pay.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £20. 

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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