The Pharmacist documentary on Netflix looks into the opioid crisis in the United States (2024)

Note: Contains spoilers for The Pharmacist. This article also discusses themes that some might find upsetting.

The Pharmacist is four episodes long, which feels short when compared to true-crime series (Making a Murderer spans about 20 hours, after all).

But the Netflix documentary, which debuted on the platform on Wednesday (February 5), still manages to cram a lot into those instalments, tackling a number of weighty and complex themes.

It began as many crime documentaries do, delving headfirst into an unsatisfactory police investigation and an unsolved (at that point) drug-related murder. Driving the series and its narrative is Dan Schneider, who tragically lost his son Danny Jr. when he was shot and killed in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, at the age of 22, back in 1999.

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The heartbreaking story was told by the family members, including Dan's wife and their daughter, through on-camera interviews and audio recordings. As well as navigating their grief, the Schneiders were also trying to piece together the tragic circ*mstances that led to Danny's death.

When authorities failed to turn up any leads to find the killer, or explain why Danny died, Dan took it upon himself to start his own investigation. Armed with recording equipment, he started knocking on doors and phoning around residents in the local area.

The first major revelation of the docu-series came towards the end of the first episode, when it became clear that the lead eye witness, Jeffery Hall – who had built a relationship with the family by this point – was actually the culprit.

Shane Redding, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, witnessed the murder and eventually decided, despite risks to herself and her family's safety, to testify.

Hall, who was only 15 at the time of the shooting, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. According to the documentary, he served 13 of those years and appeared to have real regrets over what had happened.

The Pharmacist then turns to its wider story – drug addiction, and the devastating effect that it can have on individuals as well as wider communities. The statistics are absolutely staggering. According to the series, the opioid epidemic in the United States has claimed 400,000 American deaths by overdose.

As the title suggests, Dan Schneider was a pharmacist. After returning to work following the conviction of his son's killer, he began to notice a worrying pattern in the number of customers with prescriptions for the opioid medication OxyContin.

Made and promoted by Purdue Pharma, the tablets were marketed as a less addictive alternative to other opioids (such as codeine and morphine) which were primarily used for pain relief.

Dan Schneider first spoke out about the opioid problem in 2001, a decade before it was declared an epidemic nationally. It is now widely established that the opioid crisis in America has had a catastrophic impact on millions of lives, but this documentary series takes a more granular look back at the earlier days of the problem (OxyContin started to gain popularity in the late '90s), as well as exploring one very specific example of how it took hold in one particular place.

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Jacqueline Cleggett was a local doctor who had opened her own practice for pain management, and Dan Schneider noticed that it was her signature on the vast majority of OxyContin prescriptions that came across his desk. He also noted that most of the patients were of a younger age, and that in his opinion the doses were relatively high. Turning back to his recording equipment, and driven by what he had experienced with his own son, Schneider began a new investigation into Cleggett.

He was in contact with the FBI and the DEA (the Drug Enforcement Administration), who were also independently conducting investigations of their own. Cleggett's license was eventually suspended, and in 2009 she pleaded guilty to illegally dispensing controlled substances. She faced no prison time, but was sentenced to three months probation.

Cleggett has stayed out of the public eye, but was interviewed for The Pharmacist and defended herself against allegations of wrongdoing.

Outside of this specific chain of events, the series also zoomed out to question the culpability of the bigger pharmaceutical companies in relation to the addiction crisis, shining a spotlight on the way in which Purdue Pharma operated.

In footage from a 2015 deposition in Kentucky, former president of Purdue Pharma Richard Sackler said that he did not believe the company's conduct or the way in which it marketed OxyContin caused the cases of addiction found in the state, or that it was the fault of the company that an "excessive" amount of opioids could now be found in the area. He also denied that Purdue Pharma directly led to an increase in addiction.

The documentary closed with the fact that Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy, in the wake of lawsuits starting to mount against it.

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A report published on Vox in September of 2019 stated that New York state's Attorney General Letitia James claimed that the family behind the company could have attempted to hide at least $1 billion in assets (also via The Guardian) – something that, if true, could lead to criminal charges. By that point, Purdue Pharma was facing lawsuits by more than 50 states and territories, and 2,300 cities and counties.

In January 2020, the federal judge that is overseeing the bankruptcy case set a deadline to file a claim against the company. Governments, hospitals and individuals who believe they were harmed by Purdue's products will be able to lodge claims up until June 30, 2020, although it's been underlined that there is no guarantee that these will be successful.

A report via KUTV highlights one personal account of someone looking to file against the company. Dede Yoder, from Connecticut, lost her son Christopher when he died in 2017, aged 21 years old, of a heroin overdose. His death followed a number of years of rehab and relapses, after he was first prescribed 30 days' worth of painkillers, which included OxyContin, during a series of surgeries when he was aged 13 and 14.

"I spent my whole retirement. I probably spent almost $200,000 on rehab and doctors," she said. "I would like to get my retirement back; I'm not looking for this huge payoff."

"The settlement structure is estimated to provide more than $10 billion of value to address the opioid crisis," Purdue says on its website.

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The Pharmacist highlights how one individual can make a difference, even in the face of complex systems and massive corporations.

"Everything I did, I did for Danny," are the words of Dan Schneider.

The Pharmacist is available to stream on Netflix.

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Laura Jane Turner

TV Editor, Digital Spy Laura has been watching television for over 30 years and professionally writing about entertainment for almost 10 of those. Previously at LOOK and now heading up the TV desk at the UK's biggest TV and movies site Digital Spy, Laura has helped steer conversations around some of the most popular shows on the box. Laura has appeared on Channel 5 News and radio to talk viewing habits and TV recommendations. As well as putting her nerd-level Buffy knowledge to good use during an IRL meet with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Laura also once had afternoon tea with One Direction, has sat around the fire pit of the Love Island villa, spoken to Sir David Attenborough about the world's oceans and even interviewed Rylan from inside the Big Brother house (housemate status, forever pending).

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