The new Hulu miniseries “Dopesick” paints a grim and compelling picture of the opioid epidemic, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans over the past two decades. The series is based on the bestselling book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America” by Beth Macy, a journalist and former Nieman Fellow. In a conversation with the Gazette, Macy explained how her time at Harvard contributed to her development as a reporter, detailed her work on the screen adaptation, and shared her reaction to the bankruptcy settlement that granted the Sackler family, owners of OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma, immunity from opioid lawsuits. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: In 2010, you were selected as a Nieman Fellow. How did your time at Harvard help you become an author?
MACY: I wouldn’t have written any of the three books I wrote if hadn’t come to Harvard. After my Nieman year, I went back to my newspaper [The Roanoke Times, in Virginia] with much more confidence and the ability to think bigger and more globally. My first book, “Factory Man,” about a local furniture maker that battled offshoring, is a global story. It begins in China, then it goes down to rural Virginia, then it goes to Washington, D.C. A local reporter isn’t going to think they have the authority to pursue that story, but the Nieman Fellowship gave me the authority to do that. And when I came back to Roanoke, I wouldn’t just call the expert at Virginia Tech; I would call the expert at Harvard.
GAZETTE: How does it feel to see your work adapted for the screen?
MACY: It feels fantastic. “Dopesick” did well as a book; it was a bestseller and won an award. But to see it reach Hulu — all of a sudden, the story is going to have a whole new audience, a younger audience, and hopefully can change the conversation around stigma. I know from all the reporting I’ve done for my next book, which is about solutions to the crisis, that the No. 1 thing that prevents people from having access to treatment is stigma. My hope is that when people see the story playing out on the screen, they will understand that it’s not your former co-worker at Subway who’s still in jail for selling weed or pills that propagated this issue on the nation; it was these billionaire corporations that started it all and continue skating around justice, while your neighbor is sitting in the local jail or in prison because he committed a crime while he was trying not to be dope-sick. And when I say stigma, I don’t just mean personal stigma. I also mean systemic stigma because we don’t spend enough money treating people and we put up too many barriers to medication-assisted treatment. We have an 88 percent treatment gap in America. That means only 12 percent of people with opioid-use disorders were able to access treatment in the last year. We’ve been spending billions, but a lot of that doesn’t reach people because we don’t have the infrastructures in place.
The other thing that the show provides is background for what’s happening today with the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement, and with a crisis that killed tens of thousands of Americans in the last year. It’s also great background for why the opioid epidemic happened. You see decisions being made in boardrooms, then you see pharmaceutical representatives telling falsehoods to the doctors, then you see the doctors prescribing the opioids. And then you see the poor patients getting addicted, committing crimes, and overdosing, and you really see how it played out from all sides.