Why Did Dr. Lynn Webster Trash 'Dopesick?' An Interview.

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Dr. Lynn Webster, one of the most respected pain patient advocates, managed to get through all eight episodes of Dopesick. In his review, he mentions that it wasn't half bad, provided that you like fiction. Here are his thoughts.

I have to give Lynn Webster credit. I had planned to watch and critique Dopesick, but as I learned more and more about the maddening inaccuracies in the series, I became less and less confident that I could do so without developing multiple gastric ulcers and maybe even PTSD. So, I chickened out.

Fortunately, Dr. Webster, one of the most active and well-respected pain patient advocates, managed to get through the eight-part miniseries and write a detailed (and scathing) review. He graciously agreed to answer some questions about his take on the show and his decision to try to set the record straight.

JB: Lynn, first, I want to thank you for sparing my gastrointestinal mucosa and taking on this rather distasteful task. ACSH and its readers also thank you for agreeing to speak with me about the miniseries and your decision to debunk it. You, I, and many others have struggled for years to chisel away at the fictionalized version of the opioid crisis that has been propagated by the media, government agencies, and shadowy non-government organizations, only to have it rear its ugly head in a highly praised television series; precisely the last thing that the victims of the war on opioids need. What prompted you to take action at this time?

LW:  If you need a prescription for Pepcid, let me know. 

I am always trying to correct misleading information about the opioid crisis.  The Dopesick miniseries propagates the same misinformation that most media platforms have disseminated about the reason for the drug crisis in America.  It harms people in pain and people with opioid use disorder. It doesn’t solve problems but worsens the situation by fueling public anger based on a false narrative. I have a fire in my belly to speak up for those who are suffering in the shadows and don’t have a voice.  The injustice that resulted from false narratives will not allow me to be silent. I have written a book and co-produced a documentary trying to give people with pain a voice. 


JB: Thanks for the Pepcid offer, but I'm good for now. You stress in your review that the show's creator Danny Strong claimed that using composite figures would allow him to tell a “higher truth.” What do you think Strong means? Is there any real truth within the “higher truth?”

LW:  I have no idea. It seems to imply a sort of deity judgment. I am not a philosopher, but I didn’t know there were different levels of truth. It may be like a Superhero is to a hero.  It is just purer and better.  In reality, it is a reductionist approach to a very complex problem that cannot be honestly portrayed in simple Hollywood good vs. evil story.


JB:  The miniseries was extremely popular. What do you think resonated so effectively with viewers?

LW: From a cinematic point of view, it was very well done. The acting was stellar by nearly all the cast. There was suspense and the right level of tension that is necessary for all dramas. Strong creates a highly impactful drama with the archetypical good vs. evil and where good triumphs. The drama feeds the public, which is hungry for a villain of the opioid crisis. There couldn’t be a much better villain than rich drug manufacturers. 


JB:  How could Strong have painted a more accurate picture while still connecting with the viewers? Or is this impossible because the actual facts don’t make a “pretty story?”

LW:  Strong would have had a chance to help people understand what drives abuse if he would have more fully explored 1) the failure of the healthcare system in caring for people who are addicted, 2) explored the seeds to abuse like with the character Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Derver) experienced by being rejected by her religious father for being gay, and 3) explained the fear the DEA creates in patients who need competent care after developing a physical dependency but before they are forced like Betsy to seek heroin to avoid withdrawal. J

B: Was there anything that Strong got right?

LW: The miniseries was very entertaining. Strong successfully showed the tragedy that can happen to people who become addicted to opioids in our current system.  

JB: That sounds like a no. Of course, it's virtually impossible to go wrong, whether you’re an author or politician, by criticizing the pharmaceutical industry, so it's hardly surprising that it becomes the villain. Yet, some might claim that you are actively defending the actions of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family by criticizing the miniseries.

LW: Of course not. I don’t defend any of the players involved in manufacturing, distributing, prescribing, or policing opioids.  All have contributed to the problem.  I don’t see the problem as binary or that all players have an equal responsibility.  It’s been a dynamic process that has changed over time. I am afraid if we mostly focus on Purdue or Pharma in general, we will not reduce the number of overdose deaths or rate of addiction. 


JB: Many people became addicted to opioids in the 1990s; according to the popular narrative, the blame typically falls on Purdue. Is this fair? If not, what really happened?

LW:  Wow, that is a big question and the content of my next book. Let me just state that until we address why there has been a rise in the demand for rewarding drugs/experiences, we cannot reverse the course. Supply is a factor, but understanding and curbing demand is the solution. 

JB: Anything else you'd like to add?

LW: Yes. One issue that receives woefully inadequate attention is "deaths of despair." A whole book was written on this topic, so we should understand that factors creating the state of despair have been percolating for 50 years. If the purpose of Dopesick was to tell a realistic story it would have had to shine a light on factors that created the environment where drugs are the solution for too much despair.  

That, of course, is the ugly truth. It is not the abuse of prescription drugs like oxycodone that is driving the ever-increasing death toll; that has not been the case for a long time; it is the abuse of all drugs and alcohol. Blaming Purdue for people now dying from cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and, of course, street fentanyl is nonsense. Unless we wake up to this fact, Dopesick 2 cannot possibly have a happy ending. 


#Dr. Webster's review was posted on Pat Anson's Pain News Network website. The title is great - Why ‘Dopesick’ Should Get an Emmy for Fiction. You can read it here.