Opiate Scandal in the US: ‘The Sacklers Are Done’

Photographer Nan Goldin, the leading figure in the fight against the cultural philanthropy of the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical dynasty with opioid links, welcomes the first victories achieved and intends to carry on the fight.

In the United States, where the opioid crisis continues to devastate, a wind of ethical change is blowing and a wave of anger is descending upon the billionaire Sacklers, the family descended from doctors who fell under the marketing spell. In 2017, a state of emergency was declared to tackle the problem in a country where, according to experts, every three weeks the same number of people die from this problem as on Sept. 11. As the heads of Purdue Pharma, the company that has produced Oxycontin since 1996, the family is considered the architect of the catastrophe. The powerful painkiller is derived from opium and has played a decisive role in the spread of this epidemic.

For a year, the New York photographer Nan Goldin, herself a recovering Oxycontin addict, has led a veritable crusade against the dynasty and its opiate links. “In a way, it’s over for the Sacklers. They’re done,”* she says happily on March 27, settled in the lounge of a huge Brooklyn house, cigarette in one hand, lighter in the other. The 65-year-old artist, famous for her intimate, taboo-busting shots, has been part of the activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now since 2017, their message spread by shock campaigns in the museums and institutions financed by the Sacklers. The aim is to shine an unforgiving light on the source of the philanthropists’ fortune, estimated at $13 billion net according to figures from Forbes in 2016.

A World without Physical or Mental Pain

Lately, Goldin’s efforts have paid off. Several American institutes, the Guggenheim most notably, have announced that they will no longer accept donations from the family. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for its part, and the New York Academy of Science are going to re-examine their policy on the matter. “Our voice carries. I think that these decisions are thanks to us to a large extent,”* says the woman who is both an artist exhibited in some of the establishments concerned but also a former victim of the crisis. “When I came off drugs, I started to learn more about the role of the Sacklers and that made my blood boil,”* she remembers, explaining that she felt betrayed. “I was surrounded on all sides by this name, whether it was the Fogg Museum in Boston or the Smithsonian in Washington. I had always believed it was a generous family supporting the arts.”*

The Sacklers, who face over 1,600 court cases in 35 different states, in fact support institutions throughout the country as well as abroad, making liberal gifts of six- or even seven-figure checks. In return, their name is featured prominently on a number of prestigious buildings. The Met has its flagship “Sackler Wing,” New York’s American Museum of Natural History its “Sackler Educational Laboratory,” while in Paris, the Louvre also has a “Sackler Wing.” Similarly linked are the Tate and the National Portrait Gallery in London (both of which recently cut their ties with the donors), America’s Ivy League universities such as Yale and Harvard and even some hospitals. Apart from the indirect role of some institutions, the Sackler affair has revealed the cynicism of an unwell system, one in which doctors are free to legally prescribe medication for use other than as directed and where the Food and Drug Administration is not in a position to regulate doctors’ actions. On Tuesday, March 26, the Sacklers, who deny having fuelled the crisis, had to pay $270 million in a private settlement to the state of Oklahoma, which had accused them of aggressively encouraging doctors to prescribe, sometimes over long periods of time, the highly addictive pills.

“Taking opiates for the first time is like discovering a world without physical or mental pain,”* says Goldin, who was prescribed Oxycontin following an operation. “It’s fantastic, but you can become addicted in a week. And withdrawal is totally devastating.”* According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the last 20 years more than 200,000 people have died from overdoses of opiates that have been liberally and legally prescribed. “This crisis has killed more than the Vietnam War, or the AIDS epidemic at its peak.”* In this respect, the artist does not hesitate to draw parallels between the epidemic of the 1980s, which has been the central focus of her photography, and the current crisis. “I lost all my friends in the AIDS epidemic. Now today, people are dying, and the government is not doing what it should.”*

*Editor’s note: Quotes from Nan Goldin, accurately translated, could not be verified.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply