Skip Netflix’s Opioid Documentary, Read the Newspaper Version Instead

Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin sit at a local pharmacy in Provo, Utah, April 25, 2017. (George Frey/Reuters)
It's a compelling story that works better in print.

You should really experience the story of Dan Schneider, the Louisiana pharmacist who solved his own son’s murder at the hands of a crack dealer and shortly thereafter helped to shut down a “pill mill” that was flooding the area with OxyContin in the early stages of the opioid epidemic.

But you have two options for doing so. One is The Pharmacist, the new Netflix series that lasts about three and a half hours in total. The other is “Justice for Danny,” the 2017 article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune (now the New Orleans Advocate/Times-Picayune) that the documentary is based on, which you can read in maybe half an hour. As a print journalist with a soft spot for local papers, I’m proud to say the latter is the better use of your time.

Schneider is a journalist’s dream come true. Not only does he have an amazing story — make that two amazing stories — but he also obsessively tape-recorded his thoughts and conversations throughout his experiences, leaving a rich archive of details that otherwise would have been lost. His tale makes more sense in a print profile, where it comes off as the trials and tribulations of an exceptionally tenacious person, than in a documentary, where it feels like a bunch of well-trodden genres all tossed together: true crime, big bad corporation, race relations.

Which isn’t to deny that all of those are legitimate elements of Schneider’s story. He was born in the 9th Ward of Louisiana, but his parents, like many of the ward’s whites, left for St. Bernard Parish when blacks started moving in. Years later, during the crack epidemic, there would be a recurring story of white kids from St. Bernard heading into the 9th Ward to score drugs and getting murdered. Reading the news reports, Schneider mostly thought, “He shouldn’t have been there.”

Then, early one morning in 1999, officers came to his door saying that his son, Danny, had been killed. It turned out that his son was not actually in his room sleeping, as everyone had thought, and that the family had missed the warning signs that Danny was addicted.

I won’t spoil the twists and turns the story takes as Schneider hunts down the killer, but the sheer effort is impressive: Faced with a corrupt police department that put little effort into solving drug murders and a crime-infested neighborhood where snitching was off-limits, Schneider put himself at immense risk walking through the 9th Ward, interviewing everyone in sight, putting up a $10,000 reward, and even cold-calling everyone in the area. Eventually, he found an eyewitness and managed to pester her into testifying.

It’s the story of a grieving father who pursued justice until he got it. It’s also an explanation of what it takes to solve a murder when no witness wants to come forward.

And it’s where the second part of the story begins: A few years before Danny’s murder, Purdue Pharma had begun selling OxyContin, a powerful opioid painkiller that slowly released each dose over the course of many hours, relieving pain for a longer period of time than had previously been possible. The problem was that it was addictive and dangerous — especially when crushed up to be snorted or injected, a technique that drug abusers stumbled on quickly.

Schneider started seeing something weird at his pharmacy job: patients who didn’t seem to be in much pain when coming in with Oxy prescriptions far bigger than normal, and always from the same doctor. It didn’t take much sleuthing to figure out that the doctor was running a pill mill, writing prescriptions to addicts for a few hundred bucks a pop; indeed, the federal government was already on the case before Schneider figured it all out. But it was so difficult to shut down a rogue doctor that Schneider, not the feds, ended up producing the key evidence and testimony.

There are some things, to be fair, that the documentary has and the article doesn’t. The former spends a bit more time on Schneider’s efforts to push the government to better control pill mills, and on later lawsuits against Purdue. The pill-mill efforts generally backfired, unfortunately, because addicts who could no longer go to corrupt doctors often turned to illegal drugs such as heroin. Admirably, the documentary faces these unintended consequences head-on.

In addition, the pill-mill doctor Schneider caught, Jacqueline Cleggett, declined to speak to the Times-Picayune but sat down on camera for The Pharmacist. Unlike some other participants in the opioid crisis, she has no regrets, and she spends her time trying to defend herself. It’s sad — and more than a little uncomfortable, because she suffered brain damage from a car accident and has a history of mental illness, making one wonder if she’s really fit to consent to humiliating herself in this way.

All told, there’s a lot of powerful material here on several different wavelengths — a personal story of loss, a whodunit, a region still torn apart by the racial sins of years past, a police department that fails both murder victims and the neighborhoods most wracked by crime, a big corporation that tried to normalize a medicine chemically related to heroin, a greedy doctor who saw her opportunities and took ’em. I’m not sure anyone could have pulled all that together into a coherent four-part documentary. But I do know The Pharmacist winds up feeling scattered in a way that “Justice for Danny” doesn’t, and that the article involves just a seventh of the time investment.

The story of Dan Schneider is important. It gives insights into law enforcement, addiction, and the earliest signs of the opioid epidemic — a phenomenon that continues to claim tens of thousands of American lives every year. So shut off the TV and read about it.

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