Big Pharma may have built the opioid crisis that killed my son. But judges helped them do it

July 7, 2014, is a day I will never forget. After a long weekend of celebrating Independence Day by camping in Northern California with friends, my husband and I were getting ready to enjoy a cookout with two of our children when the San Jose police called.

Our healthy and vibrant 26-year-old son, Jon, was dead.

The loss of a child is more painful than anyone should have to bear. But five months after that call, the pain became all-consuming when we learned the truth about how he died: an overdose of opioids.

Jon was a compassionate, caring, and creative young man. More into chess than sports, he was a deep thinker — someone you could never walk away from with just a trivial conversation about the weather. He had recently graduated from college with a degree in political science and rhetoric and was eventually planning to attend law school. In the prime of his life, Jon was living the Silicon Valley dream working on a startup, had a girlfriend and a puppy.

It was his girlfriend who found him dead, sitting on a chair outside on his back patio.

Jon is just one of over almost half a million Americans who have lost their lives to opioids from 2000 to 2019.

What haunts me and so many other families who have lost a loved one to these highly addictive drugs is that so many of these deaths, particularly those involving prescription opioids, could have been prevented had regulators, doctors and their patients known the risks. But since the very first lawsuit was brought against Purdue Pharma, the makers of the opioid OxyContin, in 2001, more than a dozen judges have sealed evidence showing that the drugmaker had intentionally misled doctors about how addictive time-released OxyContin and quick-acting oxycodone really are.

That practice needs to change.

Over the years, it has become routine for judges to allow companies to keep information relevant to public health secret in product liability cases. Doing so keeps the judicial process moving: corporate lawyers want to protect their client’s reputation, plaintiff lawyers don’t want to get caught in a lengthy battle to make that information public and judges want to get through their caseloads. Most of these cases are then resolved before trial, allowing the evidence to remain sealed and out of the public eye.

But there’s a human cost to that courtroom efficiency.

Even though the Food and Drug Administration had expressed concerns about Oxycontin abuse as early as 2001, the continued secrecy, maintained with judicial approval, provided Purdue Pharma with the cover to aggressively sell its drug to and knowingly mislead primary care doctors. For years, Purdue Pharma sales representatives assured doctors that the drug was not addictive and encouraged them to prescribe increasingly higher dosages to their patients. As a result, OxyContin quickly became one of the most prescribed narcotics in the US, earning the pharmaceutical manufacturer over $35 billion in sales in the process.

That intentional misinformation also cost the lives of over 250,000 people in the US, including the life of our son.

Our family only found out that Jon had been prescribed oxycodone after a motorcycle incident in college when the Santa Clara County district attorney decided to investigate his case. Furthermore, we learned that he had been prescribed 56 pills of Norco, a drug that contains the opioid hydrocodone, and 56 pills of OxyContin in the days before his overdose.

Sometimes I wonder whether we could done something to prevent his death had we known about the prescriptions. But the public was only made fully aware of how addictive OxyContin was after the Los Angeles Times published confidential Purdue Pharma documents in 2016. By then, Jon had been gone for two years.

Courts should not knowingly aid companies by providing cover for them as they harm the public. But sealing evidence about a product that poses a safety risk to the public does just that. Fortunately, California can change that.

Last month, SB1149, or the Public Right to Know Act, made it through the state Senate’s judiciary committee. Introduced by state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino (San Bernardino County), and sponsored by Public Justice and Consumer Reports, the legislation would prohibit courts and lawyers from concealing information about a product or environmental condition that poses a danger to public health or safety unless the court finds that the public interest in disclosure is outweighed by a specific and substantial need for secrecy.

Had SB1149 been in place in 2014, our son would probably still be alive today — as would so many other Americans.

I am absolutely certain that Jon did not mean to lose his life. He loved his family fiercely. We were everything to him. It would’ve crushed him to know the pain that his loss has brought us all.

Secrecy led to the overdose of death of my beloved first-born son, changing the trajectory of my and my entire family’s lives. No more families should have to go through what we and so many others have experienced. Passing the Public Right to Know Act and making it law is the first step to ensuring that no other family does.

Amy Cooper is a board member of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse.

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