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2018 is the Year of ‘The Reckoning’ for Big Pharma Opioid Shills And Insys is Next

Emily Robertson
cannabis, medical cannabis, bribe, doctors, Insys, Subsys, fentanyl, opioids, opioid epidemic, lawsuits, USA

One by one, Big Pharma giants are entering the ring to battle for their reputation, and in the case of Insys, for their life. Doctors and nurses who took opioid kickbacks are also going down. It’s about time.

While it may be known for some challenging times, 2018 is also gaining a reputation as the year of the Opioid Take Down. With hundreds of lawsuits springing up across the United States, big time opioid manufacturers are finally facing the consequences of their actions. Insys is next.

Insys Therapeutics Inc., the creators of Subsys, a nasal spray version of the fatally potent opioid fentanyl, are the next in a line of lawsuits. Ex sales executive, Alec Burlakoff, is facing up to 20 years in prison – and that’s after a guilty plea, and an agreement to be a star witness in the January trial against other Insys execs. With 50,000 opioid-related deaths on the record in 2017 alone, prosecutors aren’t letting these executives off easy.

cannabis, medical cannabis, fentanyl, Subsys, Insys, Burlakoff, opioids, opioid epidemic, USA, lawsuit

Image credit: NBC News

A history of bribery

When Subsys was released in 2012, with FDA approval, for pain in cancer patients, the drug wasn’t exactly a hot seller. Prescriptions cost anywhere from $3000 to $16,000 per month. It was obvious then that the drug was dangerously potent to kill big time pain.

Subsys were desparate to make money by any means possible. So, like many other Big Pharma companies, they resorted to bribery to sell their drug. Soon, doctors were attending ‘medical conventions’ – or what Insys claimed were medical events. In fact, they turned out to be meals at fine dining restaurants, ventures to strip clubs, and a ‘relaxing’ day out at the local gun range. After this, unsurprisingly, doctors began to prescribe Subsys for everything from common back pain to chronic pain. And Insys started raking in the bucks – you gotta spend money to make money, right?

cannabis, Insys, Subsys, fentanyl, opioid spray, opioids, opioid epidemic, medical cannabis, lawsuits, Burlakoff, bribes

Image credit: Subsys

You may be thinking, “Well, this is more than an issue of corruption in pharmaceutical companies. Those doctors broke their own ethical code agreeing to prescribe unnecessary drugs because of bribes.” You’re right, and courts across the country think so too.

Because it’s not just Big Pharma being led down to the firing line. Nurses and doctors who accepted bribes are also facing push back. One nurse, Heather Alfonso, faced a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison for accepting $83,000 in kickbacks. Jerrold Rosenberg, a Rhode Island doctor, has lost his medical license, fired from Brown University, has been fined $754,000 in restitution, and faces 51 months in prison for accepting $188,000 in kickbacks for prescribing Subsys.

cannabis, medical cannabis, bribe, doctors, Insys, Subsys, fentanyl, opioids, opioid epidemic, lawsuits, USA

Image credit: Africa Studio

Is This the Fall of Insys?

Insys is a modern Icarus, and their fall will be far from pleasant. They’re one of the first in a line of companies and executives that are facing financial ruin as legislators, prosecutors, and those affected by the opioid crisis say “enough is enough.”

cannabis, medical cannabis, Insys, Subsys, fentanyl, opioids, opioid epidemic, lawsuits, USA

Image credit: Hoika Mikhail

Their sales are plummeting. Compared to their $2 billion market valuation in 2015, they have just $113 million in the bank – hardly enough to cover the costs of running a company and the rising costs of litigation and defense. With Subsys making up 95 percent of Insys’s revenue, it’s unlikely they’re going to pick themselves back up despite misguided attempts to sell rights to the drug.

Their spokesperson, Joe McGrath, is not exactly hopeful. McGrath said in a statement, “We haven’t found a buyer – and we might not.” While McGrath claims that the plummeting sales are “an over-correction”, this only furthers understandings of the company and other opioid big names as apathetic individuals who make their money through negligence.

cannabis, Purdue, Insys, Subsys, opioids, opioid epidemic, fentanyl, USA, lawsuits, medical cannabis, bribery

Image credit: The Intercept

This comes alongside big lawsuits against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company responsible for the OxyContin epidemic. Litigation against the family is taking place across the country. The investigations into their criminal convictions have focused on their alleged knowledge of the serious and potentially fatal risks of promoting OxyContin, and their refusal to make this knowledge transparent to the public while continuing to promote the drug to both patients and doctors. They are being accused of creating a population of opioid addicts and causing death through negligence and misleading marketing of the drug.

Insys Is Trying to Make a Comeback with New Staff and Cannabis Based Medicine

Now, those same big names for opioids are trying to bank in on cannabis. Right now, they’re trying to turn the company around with a new board of directors. Insys described their decision to get “a new management team and employees committed to a culture of compliance, ethics and integrity, all aligned around a vision focused on the interests of patients. Suits involving the company mostly pertain to allegations of past misdeeds by former employees.”

cannabis, medical cannabis, fentanyl, opioids, opioid epidemic, Subsys, Insys, lawsuits, USA

Image credit: UfaBizPhoto

Well that may be true, but those ‘employees’ were executives. They weren’t small fish. And this is a bigger issue than one country – until the role of drugs as money makers, rather than healers, shifts Big Pharma are still going to get away with it.

And now, they’re trying to bank in on cannabis. They want to be, as McGrath described, a ‘cannabinoid pioneer’. They’re already making money on Syndros, one of the few cannabinoid drugs approved by the FDA. But they’re synthetic cannabinoids, rather than cannabis itself. It’s used to treat appetite loss and nausea in those undergoing chemotherapy and AIDS. Yet, revenues from this aren’t nearly the same as opioids.

cannabis, opioids, opioid epidemic, lawsuits, USA, Insys, Subsys, fentanyl, Purdue, legalization

Image credit: ARLOU_ANDREI

That they’re still allowed to produce and sell drugs may just be adding insult to injury to those who have lost loved ones or their own lives to the opioid epidemic, which Insys willingly profited from.

Big Pharma’s time is coming, and chances are they won’t make it through this. The trial in January will tell us more.

Emily Robertson

Emily Robertson has been writing freelance and contract work since 2011. She has written on a variety of topics, including travel writing of North America and the growing legalized cannabis industry across the globe. Robertson has a master’s degree in literature and gender studies, and brings this through in her writing by always trying to explore different perspectives. Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, Robertson moved to Glasgow, Scotland in 2016 to undergo her doctorate in Scottish Literature. She lives in the West End with her dog, Henley.

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