The Oxy Kingpins, 2021.
Directed by Brendan Fitzgerald.
Covers the untold story of how a network of pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors, and retailers worked together to orchestrate and perpetuate the opioid crisis that has killed over half a million people in America.
America’s opioid epidemic has killed 700,000 people over the last two decades, resulting in jail time for thousands of drug dealers, hundreds of pharmacists, and yet not a single executive from the pharmaceutical corporations truly responsible. While far from complete, Brendan Fitzgerald’s fast-moving documentary The Oxy Kingpins compellingly argues that the crisis was less an unavoidable tragedy than a rigged game at the behest of the wealthy elite.
Fitzgerald tells this story across the axis of two perspectives; Alex Dimattio, a former OxyContin dealer who speaks to us after spending eight years in jail for dealing, and Mike Papantonio, a bullish, tough-fighting attorney who corresponds with him while prepping a racketeering and conspiracy lawsuit against Big Pharma.
While lay viewers would be forgiven for assuming that the illegal OxyContin trade was a staggeringly complex operation layered in subterfuge, this film clarifies just how straight-forward it was for Dimattio to build a narcotic empire from the ground-up overnight. OxyContin is popular with addicts for both its heroin-adjacent properties and shocking ease of availability, freely prescribed by doctors around the country.
This allowed Dimattio to effortlessly game the system, creating a network of subordinates to acquire pills from pharmacies in Florida, in turn allowing him to sell the pills on at a colossal markup. Florida quickly became the Wild West of OxyContin dealing, with some dealers even opening their own “pain management” clinics with doctors who would sign off on each and every bogus prescription. At his peak, Dimattio was turning over $1.4 million a year.
The simplicity with which Dimattio was able to build his kingdom is extremely disturbing, the lack of governmental oversight and only superficial attempts to regulate being just the tip of the iceberg. His success also speaks to wider cultural issues in America surrounding medication; OxyContin can be advertised most anywhere, and you can acquire it from drive-thru pharmacies like you’re collecting a Big Mac.
But the systemic issue at the top of the pile is the unnerving truth that the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are ultimately all part of a self-contained network which conspires to flood the streets – particularly so-called “areas of despair” – somehow legally, with the drug. The result is families and communities ripped apart, all while pharma stock prices continue to skyrocket.
Effectively, opioid misuse and misappropriation is part of Big Pharma’s business model, with doctors pressured to over-prescribe Oxy, to the extent that many communities are awash in more pills-per-person that can ever be conceivably consumed. Yet as Papantonio notes with considerable bafflement, all this information is readily available to anyone looking, but nobody in a position of responsibility to act seems to much care.
After all, Alex didn’t get caught through a spirited cat-and-mouse game with the government; he got sloppy by shipping drugs through the mail and paid the price for it. The hubristic feeling of invincibility engendered by his easy success was his downfall more than any effort by the authorities to crack down on OxyContin dealing. And so, one can almost appreciate his frustration that he went to jail and others didn’t – particularly those in legitimate, suited-up positions who are cravenly profiting off the epidemic.
The pharmaceutical companies make only the most transparent attempts to deny complicity, much like Alex seemingly comfortable that they won’t be reprimanded. But there’s a more insidious tenor to their denials, shifting the blame instead to addicts, making it seem like a poor person’s self-inflicted problem rather than the white collar crime that it categorically is. And even when these companies do pay out compensation, $20 million is a drop in the ocean for outfits turning over hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and who have inexplicable powers to demand that any incriminating documentation pertaining to the case be destroyed afterwards.
But Papantonio, who previously waged war against Big Tobacco, continues his fight to make pharmaceutical companies pay up, attempting to have cities reimbursed for the huge financial costs incurred by the opioid crisis, rather than letting the bill fall to the taxpayer. His lawsuit in Nevada is set to commence next month.
Fitzgerald’s film traces the painful uphill struggle to battle a system established by sociopathic businessmen to make money at all costs, and one which is crucially maintained by society’s general lack of empathy for addicts. An 80-minute documentary can only scratch the surface of America’s opioid crisis, but The Oxy Kingpins is still a shocking primer on the legal drug cartel that is Big Pharma.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.