Sacklers of OxyContin infamy are endlessly tied to the opioid crisis in America. But the truth is they were far from the only contributors to the drug epidemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years.
Take Chris and Jeff George, for example. The steroid-jacked twin brothers opened their first pain medicine storefront in Florida in 2007, and before long, they said, “we were the Disneyland of pain clinics.” Their exploits were chronicled in a CNN Films documentary American painDirected by Darren Foster, which premieres tonight on CNN
“The George brothers didn’t start the opioid crisis,” retired FBI agent Kurt McKenzie notes in the film. “But they sure poured gasoline on the fires of hell.”
Foster, an Emmy-winning filmmaker, first crossed paths with Georges more than a decade ago.
“In 2009 I went to Florida to report on pill mills. A pain clinic had a reputation above all others as the largest, most generous dispenser of oxycodone. And that was [the George Brothers’] American Pain,” Foster tells Deadline. “So, I knew I had to go in there and film it. Little did I know that I was only able to get one shot out of the clinic before I was surrounded by Chris George and a few other very large employees. Hob… They chased me down I-95.
There was a veneer of legitimacy around George’s pain clinics—the brothers recruited licensed medical doctors through Craigslist who were willing to write an unlimited number of pain prescriptions after cursory examinations of patients. In cases where patients cannot legitimately claim for an injury or condition that required pain medication, they offer a referral to an MRI imaging service that operates out of a semi parked behind a strip club.
As entrepreneurs, the brothers came at the right time. Eventually, they smuggled more than $500 million worth of painkillers.
“What happened was Purdue Pharma [the Sacklers’ company] OxyContin lost their patent and that allowed all these generic companies to come in and make the same drug at a much cheaper price. That opportunity was taken advantage of by George Brothers,” observes Foster. “People who wanted to abuse these drugs were already there because of OxyContin. They could actually get it at a much more affordable price because they were now generic. You didn’t need insurance, you just paid for them. Can pay… [At the Georges’ clinics] No insurance taken, no credit cards taken, it was cash only.”
Huge crowds came to George’s dispensary, not only locals but also people from other states who had made the trek in search of opioids. They can be in and out at a moment’s notice (often delivering large quantities of pills to be resold at high prices back home). Some patients stashed their medications lying around in the clinic’s parking lot.
“That’s the craziest thing about the story, is that it was happening in plain sight for everybody to see,” Foster said. “A lot of things about it were suspicious from the start. And the only question is how could he continue for so long? And I think the answer to that question on some level is that it was prescription drugs. It wasn’t cocaine or heroin where it was clear that it was an illegal drug. Each has had credible denials for a long time. Doctors had to hide their medical degrees and lab coats. The patients had a prescription from a doctor stating that they were legally allowed to possess these drugs and George Brothers had a doctor.”
There was another key participant in this scenario – the drug companies that make painkillers.
“An entire pharmaceutical industry was waiting, ready to deliver [the Georges] And keep their shelves stocked,” commented Foster. “The story is American pain This explains how the drug crisis is uniquely created in America. We cannot point to foreign cartels for drug supply. These drugs were supplied in large quantities by American pharmaceutical companies… It was a truly ruthless attitude. Instead of raising red flags [about suspicious clinics]They say, “How many more pills can we give?”
American pain On Demand will be available starting Monday for paying TV subscribers through CNN.com, CNN apps and cable operator platforms. The film draws on wiretaps and undercover video to show how law enforcement eventually breaks up with the brothers, their hired medical staff. Chris George released from prison after 11 years behind bars; His brother Jeff remains in prison. Whether there is sufficient accountability for the opioid epidemic on a larger scale, given its massive scale and death toll, raises questions.
“I have met countless families who have lost people in this crisis. The level of devastation is unparalleled in the history of drugs in this country,” he said. “It’s just so devastating. Due to this crisis, the entire city, the whole city is destroyed. And I think the frustration for many of the victims’ families is that there was never justice. Keeping George Brothers away for 10, 20 years — sure, it serves justice on some level — but at the end of the day, as big as they were, they’re still tiny compared to the pharmaceutical industry, which made billions off of drugs.”
Foster added, “George Brothers paid the price for what they did. But at this time pharmaceutical companies have yet to be held criminally responsible for what happened in Florida.”