Crime of the Century: How HBO fabricated, manipulated, and outright lied about the opioid crisis
The only crime here is how Alex Gibney & his "experts" lie, manipulate sources and distort the truth by purposeful deception. And seemingly none in the media notice or care.
Crime of the Century is a fitting title for a pack of fabrications, aspersions, and lies posing as narrative.
At the start of May of this year (2021), HBO released their latest Alex Gibney mega-documentary project. Alex Gibney is a titan in the documentary world , having published behemoth documentaries on topics like Scientology (Getting Clear) and Enron (The smartest guys in the room), among others. His latest budget-breaking project means to provide the defining narrative on a challenging and complex topic: the American opioid crisis.
Created with the Washington Post and released to rave media reviews, Crime is not only disinformation but a vile attack on the disabled. Gibney repeatedly minimizes the harsh realities faced by American patients while sensationalizing a raw epidemic. And to make this dreadful farce stick, Gibney breaks all ethics and documentarian best practices. Not to mention the abuse of science and recorded fact; with the help of HBO, Gibney employs corrupt members of big rehab, bends over backward for disreputable and fanatical DEA agents, and sickeningly: grotesquely manipulates the family members of overdose victims.
As I've reported elsewhere, the opioid crisis responsible for killing over 90,000 between 2019-2020 alone is a creation of obverse policies by public health and an addiction crisis supercharged by the introduction of a deadly drug known as fentanyl. However, the truth goes against what the media have reported unskeptically en masse.
As shown in the shoddy reporting and soap-operatic opioid addiction tell-all books, from JD Vance to Patrick Raden Keefe, Gibney's "novelty" is that the original sin of the crisis is the monocausal creation of greedy big pharma pigs hypnotizing the world to treat disabled patients for their pain; as if they were human beings deserving mercy.
Dr. Lynn Webster: Guilty til Proven Innocent
Most pernicious of Gibney's chicanery is the case against well-respected pain specialist Dr. Lynn Webster. Webster is a juicy target for someone trying to put another notch in their belt; widely published in scientific journals, Webster is one of the foremost US experts in treating chronic pain.
To take down Webster, Gibney manipulates one Mr. Roy Bosley, the widower of a former patient of Webster's -Carol Ann Bosley- that committed suicide tragically in 2009. According to HBO, Webster is to blame for her death, forcing Carol on addictive opioids so as he could earn a quick buck.
This narrative is by far the most compelling tale in the documentary, which is now reflected in the many death threats Webster receives now daily. All based on a complete fabrication by HBO.
According to medical documentation, interviews, and reporting, Carol was never an addict to opioids. Instead, she was a long-term pain patient due to a significant injury to her neck from a car accident in 1998. Around a year later, when she became Webster's patient, she had already been prescribed opioids for pain.
Unlike alleged, Webster never significantly increase her opioid prescription. Her prescription for oxycontin only went to 40 mg, not a high dose, nor unreasonable treatment considering her intense, life-shattering intractable pain. Carol's problem was not opioids but her abuse of sedatives, on which she overdosed in 2008. After which, her family pushed Carol into a rehab program to go cold-turkey except for Tylenol.
Gibney wants you to believe that Carol, now an admitted addict, is clean-living, and her pain is better than ever.
Yet, as records show, this supposed clean period lasted less than a month; Tylenol was doing little for her agony. According to Webster, Carol, in tears, begged him for help. So, Webster got her back on her previous stable medication regimen and warned her not to abuse her meds.
After all, Carol was a trauma nurse; if anyone knew the dangers of abuse, it was her.
Bosley also claims his family called Webster about her addiction and that Webster would only coldly blow them off. However, unless Carol permits access, that information was not something Webster could share. Unlike what Gibney pushes onto his audience, Webster did indeed try to help Carol and attempted to find safer options, such as a pain pump and prescribing Neurontin; options that make her abuse of drugs more difficult.
Alas, on Thanksgiving 2009, Carol committed suicide.
The death of Carol Bosley is a genuinely awful tragedy deserving solemnity and not Gibney's lurid tabloid. We live in a broken, messy, and unjust world. Regrettably, someone can be the best physician in the world, and your patient might still decide to end it all. But as far as the record shows, that isn't Webster's fault.
Gibney tells his audience Carol’s death is by an accidental overdose. Her death certificate says otherwise.
Written clearly, it states death caused by "intentional ingestion of an excessive amount of medication" with a mixed drug intoxication- "primarily oxycodone and alprazolam."
Bosley -a man of no small money and influence- would later pressure the medical examiner to change the certificate from Suicide to Not Determined, which enabled Bosley to sue Webster, which got settled as almost all frivolous US medical lawsuits do. That isn’t an indication of guilt.
And unlike intimated, Webster never lost his medical license.
Moreover, it is absurd to portray Webster as a prolific drug pusher. Making hundreds of thousands of dollars, as Gibney's addiction experts falsely state as fact. A perfidious claim, when Webster is so respected a physician due to his pioneering innovations such as a key screener (Opioid Risk Tool) used in pain clinics to evaluate patients for the likelihood of addiction before prescribing.
Every physician, expert, and scientist I Interviewed for this piece only had good things to say about Webster. Dr. Terri Lewis, a well-respected clinical educator with strong ties to the medical professional community told me: "I know him (Lynn) to be an ethical physician in every dealing that I have had with him. He, like many, has taken his lumps over the years. But he is always focused on improving care and learning."
False Testimony: Dr. Andrew Kolodny and PROP.
You will find no balance here: Gibney relies on caricature; for example, the only pain patient featured is a literal drug kingpin. The foremost pain expert gets proclaimed a mass murderer manslaughterer. Pharmaceutical companies can only be about earning money through abuse, etc.
But, suppose Gibney is looking for physicians that got rich from the crisis. In that case, he should turn his camera around at doctors Andrew Kolodny and Anna Lembke, card-carrying members of that corrupt big-rehab organization Physicians for Responsible Prescribing (PROP). An extremely influential organization with significant power over the opioid prescribing guidelines of the CDC. No less than five PROP members were crucial in creating and pushing the disastrous 2016 CDC opioid guidelines.
Members of PROP are extremist advocates for forcibly removing all pain patients from their medications…which just so happens to be good for business. It turns out PROP receives its biggest chunk of funding from the big rehab juggernaut Phoenix House. Kolodny was chief medical director there from 2013 to 2016.
The selfsame years Kolodny is in charge, Phoenix House got caught by the Office of Addiction Services and Supports in 2014 for "persistent regulatory violations and resident/patient care concerns dating back several years."
Which, according to Reuters: "The regulator's findings at some or all of the (five) facilities included use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs; sexual activity among residents; reports of violence and sexual assault; insufficient, inadequately trained or abusive staff; dirty premises; and lax security, with residents coming and going as they wished."
Kolodny failed to disclose significant conflicts of interest on multiple occasions. During the Oklahoma Johnson and Johnson suit, he admitted under testimony that he was working for Nix Patterson & Roach, as in the powerful firm handling the case for Oklahoma. Kolodny earned as much as $1 million or more. It turns out the physicians in the country most likely to make a killing are Gibney's experts.
False Testimony: Ol Joe and the DEA
Part two of the documentary is no less craven.
A major player in helping craft the documentary is the Washington Post. They provide their whistleblower, disgraced DEA agent Joseph Rannazzisi. Joe formerly ran the Obama DEA's Diversion Control Office; until fired for threatening Senator Marsha Blackburn for daring to help pass legislation, the DEA didn't like.
Apparently, Senators don't respond well to threats. Go figure.
Jonathan Novak, the other DEA expert in Crime, shared with me on Twitch how Joe often engaged in risky and unconstitutional behavior while at the DEA."Joe's group was aggressive in ways that we the lawyers would constantly say, you literally can't do that. It's unconstitutional to do that. Joe's group was kind of at odds with our group, we would tell them no, for what we believe to be justifiable legal reasons. And they would tell us yes for what we believe to be temper tantrums."
But don't worry, gang, Gibney says good'ol Joe is just overzealous. Fitting. Joe travels the country now, giving anti-opioid church revivals climaxing with audio from a 911 call of a mother screaming over the corpse of her dead son. Sick.
Joe is incompetent for sure – while in charge, he admitted the DEA had no way to measure whether the anti-diversion efforts were working. Gibney allows Joe to claim overdose deaths get underreported; the opposite is true. The switchover from pills to heroin and fentanyl was anything but a "natural progression." It instead, was created by the foolish actions of the Obama FDA by forcing reformulation of oxycontin.
Follow the Science:
Gibney's employed "experts" understanding of the science of pharmaceuticals is vacuous. Misleading the audience with wholely inaccurate statements like oxycontin are more potent than morphine, or the addictiveness of a drug is equal to its strength. That Hydrocodone & oxycodone are no different from black-market "heroin pills." Or that the harvesting of-shock-74 acres (cue farmers laughing) of "super poppies" in Tasmania meant that oxy made more dangerous.
Gibney himself understanding of even an introductory high school-level chemistry class is questionable at best. He reports that the most basic universally recognized medical concepts such as tolerance, hyperalgesia, breakthrough pain, pseudoaddiction, pain scales, etc., are only the wicked tricks by the nefarious Sackler's of Purdue and not best practices.
Again, verifiably bogus. Truth means little to HBO.
Does Gibney let his audience know the DEA implemented a deep cut on the opioid manufacturing quotas, sparking a severe shortage throughout North America? It's not as if DEA agents are infamous for pressuring physicians without any evidence? Or that every effort by law enforcement and government to incur a patient and physician crackdown creates legions more dead victims as legitimate patients get pushed onto the black market?
Yes, that includes end-of-life and cancer patients, which horrifyingly have seen a 50% reduction in access to effective opioid pain treatment.
Who needs statistics?
What is the truth?
Good journalism is hard work, and it requires being willing to take on the stones and arrows of everyone, especially those who blame their doctor for an OD and not the at least partial, misused agency of the victim.
So for HBO, why tell the reality of a complex story when it is so much trendier to sell a Manichean drama? Don't like the fact that less than 1% of opioid users become addicted; why to bother with refuting a statistic, reaffirmed dozens of time; when its more straightforward to pretend it's dirty tricks by big pharma lies.
As scientists Dr. Jeffrey Singer and Dr. Michael Schatman found in a groundbreaking study shared with congress, it is an irrefutable reality that yesterday's pain patients are not today's addicts. As Dr. Singer, General Surgeon and Senior Fellow at Cato Institute, told me over the phone,
"we dug deeply into data provided by both the CDC and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and there's clearly no correlation."
As Singer's study partner Doctor Schatman, an influential pain psychologist and Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Pain, told me:
"Heroin pills" is a figment of Kolodny's warped mind. The percentage of chronic pain patients on opioids who go onto heroin is infinitesimally small. There was no "one place" where one thing went wrong." The media has been sensationalizing the chronic pain crisis and the opioid crisis for years. If it bleeds, it leads."
Indeed Schatman is supported by the evidence; the predominant narrative that Gibney advertises like a third-rate car salesman is simplistic polemics pretending to be serious reporting.
The University of Pittsburgh, published in 2018, well before Oxycontin in 1996, found that the overdose rate exponentially increased since the late 1970s. Influential scientist Bertha Madras of Harvard wrote an analysis in 2018 and placed over 30 root causes of the prescription opioid crisis.
And does it matter:
Alex Gibney is a cretinous manipulator cosplaying as a serious person. But his influence is powerful and decidedly for the negative. Through his documentary, he endeavors to spur on an already eager war in public health and big litigation, transforming medical care for the worse. Big law firms like the type Kolodny works for can get paid billions via public nuisance lawsuits. Which by all evidence seems to be working.
It seems like everyone stands to benefit from the crisis narrative, except for the victims, the addicted, and of course, American patients. The statistical reality is that opioid deaths are drastically less likely than Covid, alcohol, smoking, medical errors, and more. The ultimate irony is that in its efforts to warn citizens about the dangers of basing health policy on lousy science, Gibney ensures disinformation in spades.
What Gibney's work here boils down to is cheerleading for the opioid prohibition.
The director and his experts have expressed at multiple media events that treating chronic pain with daily opioids is an unforgivable sin.
Remember DEA agent Novak. He outright says: "There's a really uncomfortable dialogue that needs to happen in this country. That is about when opioids are actually appropriate. And a lot of people whose life is improved by taking opioids are going to be very unhappy to understand that… Opioids are in fact, the last resort, they should never be prescribed for daily usage."
And what a cost that toll will be.
Considering the weekly new studies and stats showing millions of patients shoved into suicide as they realize the ideal society Alex Gibney advocates for. Without pushback, this narrative is likely to grow, as now supported by big money from Netflix. Ultimately, this moral panic is going to cost mountains of lives. Turns out, the cost of fudging numbers, hiding the truth, and toying with emotions; is that countries like the US wind up with policies that lead to what might, in the end, be millions of good people dead and a still worsening overdose crisis.
Well done, HBO.
For this piece we reached out to HBO, Alex Gibney, Andrew Kolodny, PROP, the Washington Post, and more. Unless specified in the piece, they almost all declined to officially reply.