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The Democratic candidates are calling for locking up opioid executives

A range of presidential candidates want to hold opioid executives accountable — with prison time.

A record twelve presidential hopefuls are participating in the debate.
A record twelve presidential hopefuls are participating in the debate hosted by CNN and The New York Times.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

At Tuesday’s Democratic debate, several presidential candidates agreed on one point: The pharmaceutical executives who helped create the opioid epidemic should go to prison.

Asked directly whether opioid executives should be locked up, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said:

I am. And I will tell you as a former prosecutor, I do think of this as being a matter of justice and accountability because they are nothing more than some high-level dope dealers. They should be held accountable. This is a matter of justice. And so as president of the United States, I would ensure that the United States Department of Justice understands that you want to deal with who is really a criminal. Let’s end mass incarceration and end that failed war on drugs, and let’s go after these pharmaceutical companies for what they’ve been doing to destroy our country and states like Ohio.

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro agreed:

Yes, I am. They need to be held accountable not only financially but also with criminal penalties. And, you know, you can draw a straight line between making sure that we hold executives accountable, whether it’s these drug manufacturers or Wall Street executives that should have been held accountable a decade and a half ago.

This isn’t a brand new position.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), the frontrunner in some polls, has targeted the Sackler family, which owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma — calling for “an America where when people like the Sacklers destroy millions of lives to make money, they don’t get museum wings named after them, they go to jail.”

Similarly, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) tweeted, “The Sackler family and Purdue Pharma helped cause the opioid crisis through aggressive marketing and lobbying of the opioid painkiller OxyContin. We must hold the pharmaceutical companies and executives that created the opioid crisis accountable.”

As I’ve written before, there’s a good case for this: Even after the lawsuits and fines against opioid companies, many of the executives will walk away from the crisis as billionaires. The criminal justice system offers a way to hold opioid executives accountable where lawsuits have failed.

“If [the Sacklers] have the perception — and it’s the correct perception — that ‘people like us just don’t go to jail, we just don’t, so the worst that’s going to happen is you take some reputational stings and you’ll have to write a check,’ that seems like a recipe for nurturing criminality,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, told me.

Since the 1990s, more than 200,000 people have died of painkiller overdose deaths, with another roughly 200,000 dying from other opioids — in many cases, after using painkillers first. Pharmaceutical companies were at the forefront of causing the crisis with aggressive marketing that pushed doctors to prescribe more painkillers, putting the drugs not just in the hands of patients but also friends and family of patients, teens who took the drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, and people who bought excess pills from the black market.

“You can go to prison for accidentally killing one person with your car. That’s the minimum standard,” Rick Claypool, a research director at Public Citizen, told me. “The idea that you can run a company and cause societal-level devastation and walk away from that relatively unscathed is mind-boggling.”

For more on the case for prosecuting opioid executives, read Vox’s full piece.