Institutions with large endowments should give back the donations they received from the Sackler family due to their substantial role in causing the opioid epidemic, according to Prof. Andrew Kolodny (Heller), who was an expert witness in the recent Johnson & Johnson court trial. In an interview with the Justice, he discussed the Sackler family’s role in the United States opioid crisis and their heavy involvement in funding various cultural and educational institutions. He detailed how the Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma, became so powerful in the United States and what this means for Brandeis students. 

According to Kolodny, co-founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing and the co-director of Opioid Policy Research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, doctors were aware of the addictive properties of opioids since the 1990s. They knew that patients should not be prescribed this type of medication for common, chronic pain, but once Purdue Pharmaceuticals launched their campaign, he said, the company overwhelmed the medical field with enticing sales practices. According to Kolodny, when trying to encourage physicians to begin prescribing opioids, Purdue planned everything down to the appearance of their sales representatives, sending attractive male representatives to female doctors, and vice versa. 

The Sacklers, however, employed much more than just sales techniques. According to Kolodny, Purdue’s representatives told doctors that addiction rates in patients were extremely low and that physicians who denied patients opioids were simply allowing their patients to suffer. 

“We were hearing it from pain specialists who were getting paid by Purdue Pharma and other drug companies. We were hearing it from addiction specialists who were getting paid by the drug companies,” Kolodny said. “We were hearing it from our professional societies. We were hearing it from our hospitals, which were regulated by the joint commission which was taking money from Purdue Pharma.”

Kolodny was also quick to point out that the opioid crisis was not exclusively caused by the Sacklers and Purdue. Although Purdue led the movement to change the medical community’s view on the prescription of opioids, drug companies like Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Mallinckrodt quickly followed in their footsteps. “As we responded to this brilliant, deceptive marketing campaign disguised as education, it led to a public health catastrophe,” Kolodny said. 

While Purdue Pharma and other drug companies were further exacerbating the opioid crisis, the Sackler family immersed itself into the world of philanthropy. According to an Oct. 3 Los Angeles Times article, universities across the globe have accepted more than $60 million in donations from the Sackler family within the past five years. An Oct. 23, 2017 New Yorker article noted that the family built a substantial philanthropic reputation among the general public by “donating lavishly during their lifetime to an astounding range of institutions.” Today, the extent of these donations is seen across the globe — whether walking through Harvard University to see The Sackler Museum, at the Louvre’s Sackler Wing or at top universities like Oxford and Columbia where buildings are branded with the Sackler name, evidence of the Sackler family’s influence is prevalent, said The New Yorker.   

Kolodny told the Justice that he strongly believes universities and museums who received donations from the Sackler family must return the gifts and refuse to accept further donations. “I think that this money should be thought of the same way one might think of blood diamonds or valuables taken from people who were killed in the Holocaust,” he said. 

Kolodny emphasized that returning the money is a matter of ethics as Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies are responsible for a catastrophe that has resulted in nearly 500,000 deaths and millions of people addicted in the United States alone. He said, “Anybody who takes questionable money … [is] always going to justify taking [it] by saying we are doing good things with that money …  And I don’t think that is really adequate here.”  

The same LA Times article reported that Brandeis University is not one of the schools which received donations from the Sackler family. Many of the schools that did, however, such as Oxford University, are affiliated with Brandeis through study abroad programs. When asked whether or not Brandeis should pressure these schools to return money, Kolodny told the Justice, “I wouldn’t say that Brandeis should pressure Oxford or have nothing to do with Oxford.” 

He also acknowledged his understanding for small universities who cannot afford to give money back or who have already spent it. “But if you are an institution like Oxford or Yale with an enormous endowment,” Kolodny said, “I think then that you should give all the money back.” 

According to a Sept. 15 New York Times article, Purdue has received more than 2,600 federal and state lawsuits. Under a settlement agreement, the company agreed to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, turn Purdue into a public benefit trust and provide plaintiffs with $3 billion from the Sacklers’ personal funds, along with the remaining profits from OxyContin sales. 

Many states, including Massachusetts, refused to join the settlement, claiming it does not ask for sufficient accountability from the Sacklers and Purdue. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey wrote in a Sept. 16 opinion piece in The Washington Post, “The Sacklers would like us to believe that as part of the settlement they’re cutting a check for billions of dollars. They’re not,” referring to the settlement as a “ploy that’s offensive to families who have lost loved ones to this epidemic.”  

Kolodny explained that he thought justice could be served in this case if the Sacklers offered financial compensation for their actions. “That money belongs to the communities that have been devastated by the opioid crisis,” he said. Kolodny also emphasized the urgency for criminal charges against not just the Sacklers, but other pharmaceutical companies and executives involved in the opioid crisis as well. “If we live in a world where a billionaire can write a check and walk away still a billionaire, that scares me,” he said. “That is why justice is important — it can serve as a deterrent.”