There is a 2-minute scene in an episode of the mostly true new miniseries “Dopesick,” about the origins of the opioid epidemic, where viewers are introduced to Jay McCloskey, a former U.S. Attorney for Maine.

It ends with the revelation that McCloskey, who was among the first public officials to raise concerns about the devastation wrought by the prescription painkiller OxyContin, had left that job and gone to work for Purdue Pharma, the drug’s manufacturer.

Former U.S. Attorney Jay McCloskey (left) speaks to the media outside the federal courthouse in Portland in September 1998. At right is Brian Featheringham, Special Customs Agent at the time. Press Herald photo

“Jay McCloskey really is an (expletive),” concludes Rick Mountcastle (played by actor Peter Sarsgaard), assistant U.S. Attorney for Virginia who would lead the Justice Department’s investigation of Purdue.

There is no shortage of villains in “Dopesick.” There is the Sackler Family, owners of Purdue Pharma, who got insanely wealthy from marketing it to physicians. There are doctors who prescribed OxyContin in great quantities despite knowing how addictive it was. There are other Purdue executives who fought the government’s attempts to hold the company accountable for the wreckage caused by its drug.

But McCloskey’s brief appearance in Episode 6, “Hammer the Abusers,” offers a less-than-subtle critique of another type of character in the saga: someone who changed sides to work for the enemy.

According to McCloskey, the portrayal is neither accurate nor fair.


“You’ve got to have theater, so you have to have a few bad guys,” he said during an interview in his Portland office, where he has been in private practice for more than 15 years. “They decided they were going to make me a bad guy.”

McCloskey said the scene depicts an inaccurate timeline and he was especially disappointed with the insinuation that he was paid by Purdue to keep quiet.

“There’s no truth to that whatsoever,” he said. “Purdue did a number of things I asked them to do. They took a pill off the market because I asked them to do it. They worked on making tamper-proof prescription pads. They spent millions producing educational brochures.”

Based on Beth Macy’s nonfiction book “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” the miniseries includes several examples of individuals who had once been critical of Purdue but then went to work for the company. Curtis Wright, a former drug review officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is another.

Although McCloskey’s shift from federal prosecutor to pharmaceutical consultant wasn’t hidden, it has largely flown under the radar for many years in Maine. He hasn’t spoken much about it publicly, with the exception of testimony during a 2007 U.S. Senate hearing in which he defended Purdue and his work to help the company address some concerns.

Many in Maine’s legal community who knew McCloskey said there were always questions about his sudden about-face on Purdue, but they mostly declined to criticize him.


“I think the big question is: How much was he compensated when he switched,” said Jon Hinck, a local attorney who brought an early lawsuit against Purdue on behalf of a Mainer who had become addicted to OxyContin. “He should answer to this, although I imagine he may not want to.” Hinck is also a former Portland city councilor.

McCloskey said he doesn’t remember exactly how much he was paid but characterized the sum as a “very small amount of money.” As for whether he has regrets about the work, he said it’s easy to be critical of Purdue Pharma in 2022 with the benefit of hindsight.

“I fully recognize the tragedy for families who have been affected by drug addiction and the anger with Purdue and OxyContin as they became the emblem of the drug addiction problem in the United States,” he said.

“Was it all a public relations campaign by Purdue? You can make your own decision, but I can’t make that decision without having the millions of documents that other people have had access to.”

Series creator Danny Strong, in email responses to questions, defended how McCloskey was portrayed.

“The show does not implicate that he was paid off by Purdue to stay quiet,” Strong wrote, “the show implicates that he’s an ‘(expletive)’ for taking a job with a criminal and corrupt company whose dangerous product, OxyContin, he had previously warned every doctor in the state of Maine about as the U.S. Attorney.”



“Dopesick,” which streams on Hulu, has been a critical success. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for best miniseries and is likely in contention for an Emmy nomination as well.

The series focuses on the role Connecticut-based pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma played in creating the opioid epidemic that continues to ravage the country. Purdue developed OxyContin as a wonder drug for pain management, marketed it aggressively to doctors and then downplayed or ignored concerns about its addictiveness.

Most of the series is set in a small, rural Virginia community – a stand-in for many areas of Appalachia where OxyContin prescriptions exploded in the mid-to-late 1990s. Another area that was one of the first to see a major increase in painkiller prescriptions followed by drug addiction was Maine’s Washington County.

It was the crisis in Washington County, and other Maine counties, that prompted McCloskey to speak out at a time when not many were.

“I did everything I could as U.S. attorney to bring information about the abuse of prescription drugs to the population in Maine,” said McCloskey, who served as Maine’s top federal prosecutor from 1993 to 2001. “Because people didn’t know it. Doctors didn’t know it. Law enforcement officials didn’t know it.”


McCloskey sent letters to doctors across the state to draw attention to the drug’s dangers. He also later met with Purdue executives to discuss ways the company might help reverse, or slow down, what was happening.

Joseph Moraski, Inspector General for Investigations for this region of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services comments on the prescription drug abuse problems in Maine with U.S. Attorney Jay McCloskey, standing behind him, during a press conference at McCloskey’s office in August 2000. Press Herald photo

The scene in the series shows that meeting. McCloskey, played by actor David Alexander, is at one end of a table, while Purdue officials, led by its top marketing executive Michael Friedman, are at the other. McCloskey is unimpressed at first with Friedman’s attempt to downplay the severity of OxyContin’s grip on Maine and other states.

“This is more than a concerning topic. This is a crisis in our state that stems directly from your drug,” McCloskey says.

Friedman then tells McCloskey that Purdue wants to help and outlines an effort to educate physicians.

The scene cuts between that meeting and Mountcastle, an assistant U.S. Attorney for Virginia who is trying, unsuccessfully, to get hold of McCloskey.

It then cuts back to McCloskey listening to Purdue officials. His demeanor has softened.


Then back to Mountcastle, who’s told by a colleague, “I literally just found out why McCloskey’s not returning your calls … the former U.S. Attorney is now representing Purdue Pharma.”

Back to McCloskey: “I’ll take it under consideration,” he tells the Purdue executives.

Back to Mountcastle: “Jay McCloskey really is an (expletive).”

The scene ends.

This scene from “Dopesick” includes vulgar language.

The series doesn’t really return to McCloskey after Episode 6, but the implication is clear: He was an example of how Purdue executives brought in people who had previously been trying to regulate them.


McCloskey, however, said there’s no way he would not have returned a call from Mountcastle, a Justice Department colleague. Also, McCloskey had already left the U.S. Attorney’s Office when Mountcastle’s investigation began.

Strong, the series creator, said the show indicates only that McCloskey “is now in private practice” when Mountcastle is trying to reach him. It doesn’t say that Mountcastle called him while he was still U.S. attorney.

Whether or not McCloskey returned a specific call “is an example of picking apart a minor detail in order to obfuscate from the fact that he was hired by Purdue Pharma to defend their criminal actions after he left his role as a U.S. Attorney where his job was to protect the citizens of Maine who have, and continue to be, devastated by Purdue’s lies,” Strong said.


Much of McCloskey’s role for Purdue Pharma, for whom he served as consultant from 2001 to 2004, was outlined in 2007 testimony before a U.S. Senate committee. He was no longer consulting for the firm at the time and was not paid for his remarks.

“During that time, I worked closely with several Purdue Pharma executives, and I came to know them and to understand the company’s corporate culture,” McCloskey said in that testimony. “I was deeply impressed by the unmistakable interest in the public welfare that emanated from the executives with whom I worked. In every instance, Purdue Pharma executives not only fully supported my public interest-oriented recommendations, but they also ensured that they were implemented in a thorough and meaningful fashion.”


McCloskey also pointed out that he continued to make presentations to doctors and others about the dangers of drug diversion long after he stopped being paid by Purdue.

Strong criticized McCloskey for his unpaid congressional testimony, too, which he said came a few months after Purdue pleaded guilty to misleading the public about OxyContin’s risk and agreed to pay $600 million in one of the biggest settlements ever for a pharmaceutical company.

“In his testimony he even refers to the prosecution of Purdue’s three top executives as ‘unprecedented and a regrettable choice of prosecutorial discretion’ when in fact it is now widely accepted as a grave injustice that these executives were allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanors instead of being prosecuted for felonies,” Strong said. “It is stunning in light of the criminality of this company that a former U.S. Attorney would defend them so vigorously for free.”

More recently, Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal wrongdoing in its marketing of OxyContin and the company filed for bankruptcy in September 2019 in the face of 3,000 additional lawsuits accusing the company and Sackler family members of contributing to a public health crisis. A proposed $4.5 billion settlement was recently rejected in court.

Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist who has worked in Greater Portland for nearly two decades, said he couldn’t speak to McCloskey’s role with Purdue, but said he’s always been bothered with how the company lured one-time critics.

“I remember Purdue would send people to sit in the audience to intimidate doctors,” he said. “It was overt. It was menacing. And they did a good job of recruiting prominent doctors to become advocates.”


The role of OxyContin in the opioid epidemic has been well-documented. Because it was so highly addictive, many people who got legal prescriptions became hooked and went looking for it elsewhere once prescriptions ran out. Once regulators got tougher on prescribing practices, OxyContin was harder to get, but the demand didn’t wane. That’s where heroin filled the void. Now, the synthetic and highly lethal opioid fentanyl has supplanted heroin.

In the 15 years since McCloskey defended his consulting for Purdue before lawmakers, much more has come out about Purdue and its practices. Some of it has come from investigative reporting by Macy, the author of “Dopesick,” Patrick Radden Keefe, whose book “Empire of Pain” is a scathing takedown of the Sackler Family, and others. The rest has come out during legal proceedings that are still ongoing.

Meanwhile, the opioid epidemic that began more than 20 years ago has never been more deadly. Just last year, more than 600 people died from drug overdose in Maine, by far the most of any year to date.

McCloskey, who lives with his wife, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen, in Scarborough, said stakeholders would do well to spend settlement money on educational efforts, as he tried to do two decades earlier, first as a prosecutor and then as a consultant.

“The only way to make a dent in this problem is through an education campaign,” he said. “You can’t treat your way out of it. Treatment is necessary, but it won’t stop the problem from growing. If you don’t stop the demand, you’re not going to slow the problem down.”

McCloskey said he’s gotten a “fair amount of hate mail,” as a result of “Dopesick. The series, not the book.

“The people who read the book aren’t the type to send hate mail,” he said with a chuckle.

Although he ultimately agreed to talk about the series with a reporter, McCloskey was at first reluctant to be interviewed because doing so might lead to more criticism.

“I think I did the right thing,” he said. “I certainly did as U.S. attorney, and when they asked me to continue efforts to reduce the abuse of OxyContin, I didn’t see that as selling out. I thought if they could take my suggestions to try to stop the abuse, what harm could that be?”

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