This story is a collaboration between ProPublica and STAT.
In 2004, Purdue Pharma was facing a threat to sales of its blockbuster opioid painkiller OxyContin, which were approaching $2 billion a year. With abuse of the drug on the rise, prosecutors were bringing criminal charges against some doctors for prescribing massive amounts of OxyContin.
That October, an essay ran across the top of The New York Times’ health section under the headline “Doctors Behind Bars: Treating Pain is Now Risky Business.” Its author, Sally Satel, a psychiatrist, argued that law enforcement was overzealous, and that some patients needed large doses of opioids to relieve pain. She described an unnamed colleague who had run a pain service at a university medical center and had a patient who could only get out of bed by taking “staggering” levels of oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin. She also cited a study published in a medical journal showing that OxyContin is rarely the only drug found in autopsies of oxycodone-related deaths.