Prescription drugs (illustrative)
Prescription drugs (illustrative) iStock

Purdue Pharma, the company that has been producing the opioid painkiller OxyContin for the past few decades, has pleaded guilty to three criminal charges, CBS News reports, following an ongoing saga of apportioning blame in what has been called an opioid epidemic, contributing to the deaths of around half a million people.

Last month, Purdue reached a $8.3 billion settlement and agreed to admit its guilt in enabling the supply of drugs “without legitimate medical purpose.” The U.S. Department of Justice said at the time that it would forgo most of the penalty money and channel it instead to communities severely impacted by the opioid crisis. In addition, the Sackler family agreed to relinquish control of the company, which had in any case already filed for bankruptcy.

During the virtual hearing on Tuesday, Purdue board chairman Steve Miller, who assumed control of the company only in 2018, admitted to impeding the efforts of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in its efforts to combat the addiction crisis. Miller also admitted that Purdue told the DEA that it had a program in place to prevent its drugs from reaching the black market, when no such program existed. He also pleaded guilty regarding inducements paid out to doctors encouraging them to prescribe OxyContin, even as the extent of the opioid crisis was becoming wider and clearer.

At present, only $225 million of the $8.3 billion are to be paid out to the government, and the Sackler family has agreed to pay an identical amount to the government to settle civil claims. Critics want to see the Sacklers assuming personal responsibility and are demanding that criminal claims be leveled against them directly rather than against the company – which may yet come to pass.

Following its guilty plea, Purdue issued a statement “taking responsibility for past misconduct [which] is an essential step to preserve billions of dollars of value for creditors and advance our goal of providing financial resources and live-saving medicines to address the opioid crisis.”

Attorneys-general for around half of U.S. states have opposed the federal settlement, as well as the separation it creates between the Sackler family and its company. They have already filed documents directly linking members of the Sackler family to Purdue’s aggressive sales tactics, even after the crisis was no longer a matter of dispute, and have evidence of statements made by Sackler family members charging employees with doing everything necessary to “save the business.”