All the while I was writing the episode on the addiction problem and how yoga can help, there was a niggling in the back of my head. It was around the opioid crisis really, not so much about recreational drugs, but rather about how so many people started taking opioid for pain and ended up losing their friends and family, their jobs, their health, and sometimes their lives. Most of us have heard about the ultimate drug pushers – big pharma – those large pharmaceutical companies whose aim is really sales, and more sales, and users, and more users. I don’t blame companies for trying to make a profit – that is the very goal of a for-profit company. What I am interested in is how a company who makes medications to help with disease, or conditions, or pain – all good – steps over the line and, turning a blind eye, continues to make a drug and do anything to increase the sale of a drug that clearly is causing harm. Harm is a very light word hear. Let me say it directly. Killing people. Causing them to be disowned by their family. Putting them in debt, in jail, in rehab. Decimating entire towns with people walking around like zombies, stealing to get the drugs. Killing others to get the drug. What exactly is that moment when the company’s president, let’s just call him Richard for the moment because this president will be a real person, someone with a home and a family, makes that internal decision (because every decision begins inside) to ignore the damage reports and continue pushing the sales of the drugs. This point when Richard thinks, oh maybe the reports are wrong, or the reports are exaggerated, or this is just a phase and it will go away. These reasons, and I am sure Richard has thought of all of these, are believable, justifiable. After all, reports can be wrong or blown out of proportion. Should Richard stop making millions based on faulty data? We might all say no to that question.
By now you probably know I’m talking about Richard Sackler of Purdue Pharma, the maker of the highly addictive OxyContin. In a federal legal decision September 2021, Purdue was allowed to dissolve without accepting any blame for the opioid crisis. They had to pay out billions to address the disaster left by the opioid crises, but they got off without blame and are still one of the richest families in the world. Purdue Pharma, the Sackler Family, and specifically Richard Sackler, if you are to believe movie Dopesick (and we must take all dramatizations as just that), consciously said to himself: I don’t care if these reports of addiction and devastation are true – making money is so much more important. Instead of making a drug to help people, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family chose to make a drug that harmed them. I feel a need to name these family members: Mortimer Sackler, Richard Sackler, Theresa Sackler, Kathe Sackler, Jonathan Sackler, Beverly Sackler, David Sackler, and Ilene Sackler.
And that, of course leads me right to the yogic notion of “ahimsa” – do no harm. It is one of, indeed the most important, of the five “yamas,” which you can think of standards for how to treat others in the world – guidance for our social relationships. Above the other four yamas – non-possessiveness, truthfulness, non-stealing, dedication on the spiritual path – non-harming is the highest. In the presence of someone who is soundly established in non-violence, all animosity from others goes away. Why is ahimsa the most important of the five? Because if you truly practice not harming others with your words, with your actions, then the other 4 yamas fall rather easily in place. It is the king of the yamas. Buddhism says the same thing. The first of the five precepts and requires the student to avoid killing or harming any living thing.
Here is the truth. I would love to interview Richard Sackler for our podcast. Not to shame him, not to exploit him, but to drill down to the moment of decision he had to have made when in his heart (true self, atma, etc) he knew that OxyContin was killing people but decided to continue making it. And pushing it. Because Richard Sackler was no better than the “abusers” he asked to “hammer,” trying to shift focus and blame the uses of his pills instead of the pill itself. He was a drug pusher, with no more morals or ethics than the same drug dealers on the street. But there was one point, one moment sitting there at his desk, when he could have chosen to help, to non-harm. But he didn’t. This moment was pivotal. I would love to know what could have swayed him towards the path he didn’t choose.