“It was like somebody poured kerosene under my skin and then put a torch to me,” said William Thomas, a California physician addicted to a prescription drug that had been pushed by one of America’s wealthiest dynasties — the Sackler family.

Other substance abusers also came to Washington to tell their devastating stories — a banker, a priest, a housewife, a teacher — at a congressional hearing investigating an American drug crisis.

OxyContin, right?


This was 1979, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) was holding a Health Committee hearing on Valium — the drug that about 15 percent of the nation was hooked on at the time. Kennedy called it “a nightmare of dependence.”

Hindsight shows us it was the Sacklers’ practice run.

The family learned this week that only a small chunk of their fortune would be paid for the nightmare their drug gave our nation after a New York court cut them a sweet deal, granting them immunity in all current and future lawsuits involving their dealings in the opioid business in exchange for a $6 billion settlement to eight states and D.C. Between 1999 and 2020, more than 564,000 people died of opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Sacklers still have billions. And they’ll never have to pay for their patriarch’s first foray into rope-a-doping their fellow Americans into prescription drugs. At the time, activists, reporters and legislators didn’t tie the Sackler name to Valium.

The disco-era hearings told a story stunningly similar to what our nation just went through with the opioid crisis, right down to a drug company insisting its pills aren’t addictive, that it’s just a small group of people who are the problem, according to news accounts of the hearings.

Hoffmann-La Roche, maker of Valium and Librium, was mentioned in the hearings, but not Arthur M. Sackler, who revolutionized the marketing of prescription drugs and made Valium the top-selling drug in America for years. He was even honored by the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, which in a 1997 induction credited him with medical training that helped him “distinguish for the physician the complexities of anxiety and psychic tension. Accordingly, Valium became the first $100 million drug, a then staggering sales figure.”

The ads for tranquilizers in the 1970s targeted women’s depression, anxiety and desperation in the early days of the feminist revolution, promising the pill that the Rolling Stones in the 1960s called “Mother’s Little Helper” would make sure a housewife could “cook breakfast again,” or that the mom tied up by her costume-wearing kid “can cope.”

At that time, the Sackler name was making news for the funding of art galleries, museums and schools.

Three years after the congressional hearing into the way Arthur M. Sackler marketed Valium to America, he returned to D.C. to give the Smithsonian $20 million worth of Asian art and a $4 million check to construct a gallery for it.

The Valium king’s name remains etched in stone here; the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is on the National Mall. And even though museums and galleries across the globe are removing the Sackler name from their walls, it’s going to have to remain in Washington, officials said.

“Our 1982 gift agreement with Arthur Sackler designating the museum building as the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in perpetuity is a legally binding contract,” said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution.

They rewrote their policy in 2011 and now a donor only gets to name a space for 20 years, or until the next major renovation. And they did a soft rebrand of the Sackler site, combining it with the Freer Gallery (Charles Lang Freer was a railroad guy who turned to art after breaking down in exhaustion, and as far as history shows us, he wasn’t an extremely destructive rich guy) to form the National Museum of Asian Art.

Arthur Sackler’s widow, Dame Jillian Sackler, launched an outrage tour when museums began removing the Sackler name, especially after Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) asked the Smithsonian to remove the Sackler name from the gallery three years ago.

“Arthur died of a heart attack nearly 32 years ago at age 73, nearly a decade before OxyContin came to market,” she said in a 2019 op-ed in The Washington Post.

“Neither Arthur nor his heirs had anything to do with the manufacture or marketing of OxyContin. Suggestions that his philanthropy is now somehow tainted are simply false.”

Yet the Sacklers followed their patriarch’s Valium playbook to push the far-deadlier OxyContin. It was the direct marketing to doctors and playing down the drug’s addictive nature — exactly what drove billions in Valium sales annually in the 1970s — that fueled the opioid crisis. The warnings about this kind of marketing were clear, even back in 1979.

At that 1979 Valium hearing, Kennedy asked Joseph Pursch, a doctor who headed an alcohol rehabilitation service at a naval medical center in California, how addictive the drug was.

Pursch said he’d seen people become addicted to the tranquilizer in six weeks.

“None of these drugs solve our problems,” Pursch said. “They make people feel better because they make you feel dull and insensitive. But they don’t solve anything.”

The Sackler family is immune from being sued by anyone else whose life was devastated by the drugs they got filthy rich from. But they aren’t immune from the continued public scorn that we could — and should — offer them.

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