Brow Beat

Watch Stephen Colbert Take on the Sackler Family, America’s Most Respectable Drug Dealers

Stephen Colbert, in front of a picture of the Sackler family, plus the logos for Purdue Pharma and Rhodes Pharma.
“The Sacklers addicted the country to opioids—now they’re gonna profit off the cure? That takes a pair of swinging Sacklers.” CBS

America has no shortage of evil billionaires, but the Sackler family has managed to build their fortune on the backs of other people’s suffering in a way that makes Bezos and DeVoss look like absolute pikers, and until recently, they did it relatively quietly. The details on exactly how many killings it takes to make a killing—and the way the family has laundered its reputation by letting a few drops of blood money trickle down to respectable institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art—were outlined in chilling detail in the New Yorker last fall. But New Yorker readers are a pretty small portion of the country compared to, say, The Late Show With Steven Colbert, so it seems worth noting that Colbert devoted a portion of his show this week to calling out the Sacklers by name:

The proximate causes of the Colbert segment are two new revelations about the Sacklers. First, the family has claimed in the past that it is unfair to blame them for the opioid crisis, because their company Purdue Pharma’s flagship drug OxyContin accounted for a relatively small percentage of opioid prescriptions. But although they didn’t publicize it, it turns out the family also owns another pharmaceutical company, Rhodes Pharma, that sells generic versions of opioids, giving them a larger piece of the pie than they’d admitted. (Rhodes Pharma was founded in 2007, the same year that Purdue pled guilty to felony criminal charges for lying to doctors and regulators about OxyContin’s addictive potential.) The second piece of great news about the Sacklers was that Richard Sackler obtained a patent in January for a new drug to treat opioid addiction, so the family can make even more money from the people whose lives they’ve already ruined. That—along with the Sacklers’ campaign to bring the wonders of opioid addiction to the rest of the world—was enough for Colbert to devote a network TV segment to their depravity.

It’s a refreshing respite from the usual approach to bad actors with obscene wealth, which is to criticize people like Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers for what they do with their money, but rarely for how they made it in the first place. Colbert’s segment may not represent a sea change in the public mood so much as it represents a monument to the cartoonish villainy of the Sacklers, but it’s at least comforting to know that their family’s reputation is taking a hit that a new museum wing won’t fix. It matters what you do in this life. It matters where the money came from.