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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Blood Money, Drug Companies, and Gardens

Dear Ms. Marianne Skolek,

First of all, let me applaud you for your staunch stand against rx drug abuse and your continuing investigative efforts to expose legitimate criminality in Big Pharma. We are all aware of those who have committed horrible wrongdoings for profit. You do a great service by publishing evidence of abuses in the pharmaceutical industry. You have dedicated your life to seeking much-needed reform, and I hope you never stop your honorable search for justice.

In addition, I empathize with the unimaginable pain you feel because OxyContin stole the life of your beloved daughter. I, too, have dozens of friends who have lost family members to rx drug abuse. I, too, know many other families struggling through the present addiction of a loved one and all the related devastation that dependency breeds. I despise the damage drug abuse inflicts.

I am, however, greatly puzzled by your comment to a blog post I wrote about seeking a large sum of grant money from Purdue Pharma to construct a healing garden that would contain a SOLACE National Memorial to the Victims of the Disease of Drug Abuse.

After reading my post, you commented,

"You are taking blood money 
from the people responsible 
for your loved ones addiction and death. 
Do not lose sight of that."

I assume by blood money, you mean "money paid by a killer as compensation to the next of kin of a murder victim." In other words, to you, blood money is money obtained at the cost of another's life. This is a common definition of the term -- a definition with a very negative connotation to most.

Encyclopedia Britannica relates the history of the term blood money by citing: "Among the Anglo-Saxon tribes, members of the killer’s kin group contributed to pay wergild, or blood money, to the kin of the victim. Kinsmen contributed according to the distance of the relationship to the murderer; the sum was divided among the victim’s kin on the same basis.

An additional entry follows: "Among many Indians of the northern Pacific coast of North America, blood payment was mandatory after killings in order to make peace possible, even when actual blood vengeance was also required. In most places there was no fixed standard, each group demanding as large an amount as possible. If agreement was not reached, a feud might result."

Please understand that blood money is, colloquially, a reward for bringing a criminal to justice. The American legal system is comprised of two very different types of cases, civil and criminal.  Crimes are generally offenses against the state, and are accordingly prosecuted by the state.  Civil cases, on the other hand, are typically disputes between individuals regarding the legal duties and responsibilities they owe one another.

Criminal offenses and civil offenses are generally different in terms of their punishment. Criminal cases will have jail time as a potential punishment, whereas civil cases generally only result in monetary damages or orders to do or not do something. A criminal case may involve both jail time and monetary punishments in the form of fines.

Criminal cases involving drug abuse are fairly common. When criminals employ drugs to cause death and/or injury, they must be severely punished. The legal system requires that crimes be proved by substantial evidence to the degree of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Civil cases are proved by lower standards requiring "the preponderance of the evidence," which essentially means that it was more likely than not that something occurred in a certain way. The difference in standards exists because civil liability is considered less blameworthy and because the punishments are less severe.

I assume your negative connotation of "blood money" would apply to monetary damages paid to victims' families by a decision rendered in a civil case. To me, this reward is a far cry from the Biblical reference to "blood money" as the thirty pieces of silver Judas received in exchange for revealing the identity of Jesus to the forces sent by the Pharisees. Judas Iscariot committed an act of betrayal to receive payment whereas a court rewarding civil monetary damages is an act of retribution. Do you not believe in the American court system's policy of  retribution as punishment, Ms. Skolek?

I assume if you do think monetary retribution for death is "blood money," you did not want the court to favor the office of the Western District of Virginia in the 2007 settlement and order Purdue to pay $600 million in fines, including $160 million to state and federal health care programs and $130 million to resolve pending private lawsuits (Los Angeles Times, 5/11).

Purdue CEO Michael Friedman, general counsel Howard Udell and former Chief Scientific Officer Paul Goldenheim each did pay a fine ranging from $7.5 million to $19 million. Many of us, myself included, would have liked to see them do significant jail time but the court decided against that.

As part of that settlement, the court insisted that the money should go to finance community programs to help drug abusers, law enforcement aimed at reducing substance abuse and medical education to further reduce substance abuse.

Granted, to a person like yourself, Ms. Skolek, whose life has been ravaged by Purdue Pharma's Oxycontin, the fact that three Purdue Pharma executives pleaded guilty to misleading the public regarding the dangers of OxyContin and were fined is not sufficient punishment. You are working to ensure that criminals like the Purdue trio do not get away with these crimes or light sentences anymore. Your work is noble, indeed.

Still, I think the impact of the Purdue settlement made permanent gains for those fighting for change and determined to seek the proper responsibility for criminal actions. I, too, want justice, but I know the system moves slowly and often in tiny increments. Some of the payments even went to necessary treatment of those addicted to the drug and helped save lives. Even if the court did not thrust the point of the spear of punishment as hard as we had wished, it, at least, penetrated the thick skin of the greedy. I believe victims need more monetary compensation.  

I fully believe in retribution. Although it doesn't cure, retribution can help heal. By using money to construct a healing garden, the fruits of the settlement benefit families that have been struck by tragedy, those who now deal with dependency, and new generations that face the potential horrors of abuse.

Nothing could ever cure the pain you feel, Ms. Skolek. No amount of money or sympathy or justice could effect that outcome. I do believe though that some common ground must be shared by the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and those damaged by their mistakes. Only then will better insight provide strong relief - a potential to heal.

Let me temper these comments by saying that I do not understand how hundreds (thousands?) of civil cases dealing with drug deaths are not being filed against criminal elements of the healthcare community and coming to trial in a speedy fashion. I hope anyone who has legitimate proof of wrongful death and permanent injury receives a good measure of justice whether the justice involves receiving the death penalty,  jailing guilty parties or requiring the villains to pay.

I personally know of many such culpable circumstances in my area of Scioto County. These shattered families should all seek measures to weaken criminal enterprises and bring unscrupulous professionals to judgment. If and when they take the parties to court and they believe judgments to be too lenient, they must help change the rules of the system as they build on tiny steps of positive progress.

Ms. Skolek, what you see as "blood money," 
I see as responsible retribution. 

Nowhere else in America has seen drug abuse
dominate the spirit, 
the will, 
and the lives of its residents 
like my home of Scioto County, Ohio. 

Many of the people here are actually ashamed of living in an area dubbed by one renowned national reality show doctor as "the small town (Portsmouth - the county seat) where everyone is addicted." What an unkind, unethical and untrue statement to make about a place willing to reveal the epidemic of drug abuse as a pertinent warning to the rest of the country while they pour every ounce of local resources into alleviating their problem.

We, in Scioto County, are a proud, common people with a powerful grass roots movement in place to end abuse. We have been accustomed, as Appalachians, to being regarded as an ignorant and backwards lot. This very "difference" applied by those who believe in the "dumb hillbilly" stereotype has made us stronger in common causes.

Although neglect and economic conditions contributed to our unhealthy state, we Appalachians fight best when cornered and up against tremendous odds. The large number of "drug sick" residents here have become the perfect willing victims of their own demise. Unfortunately, once-trusted institutions and professionals have gladly contributed Jonestown poison to these residents, and the distributors have exchanged their souls for their unholy love of money. At one time, we would have been able to exorcise our own demons, but now we have few resources to aid us other than the survival instinct.

We understand that a pill or a company in its very essence or, certainly, in its entirety, is not bad. Without the thoughtful manipulation by certain evil human beings, companies and their drugs cannot purposely kill masses of people. Justice demands that those who do manipulate evil devices be brought to trial. Yet, should every Nazi in Germany be held accountable for the sins of Hitler and his henchmen? Should every physician be held accountable for standing by while other doctors perform abortions? And, most aptly, should every victim of intense pain count each prescription he or she consumes as evidence of a pharmaceutical manufacturer's wrongdoing?

Please, Ms. Skolek, continue your good work to lift up the rocks and uncover the slimy creatures responsible for committing  rx drug crimes. That is what Scioto has done recently with the help of health officials, enforcement officers, lawmakers, medical and pharmacy boards, support groups, and scores of dedicated citizens. Much irreversible damage caused by many criminals has been done, yet the people here deserve every consideration of possible retribution. We are working for solutions every day and not sitting on "our fat, lazy asses" as some may stereotypically think.

As far as "blood money," I believe history and the legal system both have traditionally recognized the difference between bribe and compensation. I would never betray a victim of illegal drug abuse by taking "blood money." I am not, however, ready to denounce and punish an entire company for the sins of certain group members. I am willing to help change attitudes and policies through reconciliation and meaningful encounters. And, I am willing to continue my fight, no matter how perilous, against those who contribute, in any way, to abusing innocent people. If that means making the hoods cough up every bloody cent they plucked and returning it to the rightful owners, I will strive to do that.

To close, I would like to request your help, Ms. Skolek. With your resources and knowledge, I would like to begin a campaign to assist those who have been damaged by the destruction and death caused by OxyContin. If you know of someone who deserves compensation because criminals knowingly and purposely, either through their own disregard or illegal activity, caused such a tragedy, I want to begin writing letters to inform the proper authorities of their misconduct. If victims have necessary proof for trial, we will be doing them (and all of us) a favor by flooding the system with crucial information. We will be seeking justice for all.
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