The ongoing saga of the Murdaugh family, a well-connected legal dynasty in South Carolina, has shed light on the state’s galloping black market for prescription opioids and how authorities have struggled to contain the drug crisis in boom during the pandemic.
Among the questions state investigators must resolve regarding attorney Alex Murdaugh, who was indicted on Thursday for attempting to stage his own death, is how much money he allegedly stole from the law firm of his family, how it was spent and who benefited from it.
Reports suggest “millions of dollars” have been embezzled, and his attorney, Richard “Dick” Harpootlian, said on NBC’s “TODAY” Wednesday that the “vast majority” of funds were used to buy opioids and that there were “checks written to drug dealers.”
The public downfall of Murdaugh, a once prominent personal injury lawyer whose family patriarchs previously wielded power as senior prosecutor for the Coastal Lowcountry of South Carolina, underscores just how much opioid abuse can devastate people of all walks of life, said Christina Andrews, associate professor in the Department of Health Services Policy and Management at the University of South Carolina.
Also, the outside perception that Murdaugh could have a job – he also volunteered on files for the 14th Circuit Notary’s Office – should be a cautionary tale, she added.
“It’s a common misconception that if you have a serious addiction the signs will be inevitable,” Andrews said. “It is not. People can totally abuse opioids for years and others miss it.”
In his initial court appearance after surrendering to authorities on Thursday, Murdaugh, 53, was posted $ 20,000 bail as he faces charges of insurance fraud, conspiracy in sight committing insurance fraud and falsifying a police report – due to his involvement in the attempt to create his own deceased earlier this month so that his son, Buster, could claim a policy from $ 10 million life insurance. Murdaugh did not plead.
Harpootlian told a Hampton County judge his client had been an opioid addict for 20 years and his actions were the result of mental anguish following the June murder of his wife, Margaret, and a other son, Paul. Their deaths remain unresolved; Murdaugh’s legal team has denied his involvement as the early murders spawn further family-related criminal investigations.
Examining magistrate Tonja Alexander ordered Murdaugh to surrender his passport, but allowed him to return to an out-of-state drug rehab center.
“He fell out of favor,” said Harpootlian, his client in tears.
“He is no longer a man of substantial means.”
According to his attorneys, Murdaugh told officers in the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division that his “primary” opioid supplier was Curtis Edward Smith, a former client now accused of aiding him in the process. botched effort to stage his own death in a mock roadside attack on Labor Day. weekend. Prosecutors say Murdaugh provided Smith with a gun and ordered him to shoot him in the head, but Murdaugh was only touched superficially.
Smith has been charged with conspiracy and insurance fraud and aiding a person to commit suicide, among other counts.
Murdaugh’s attorneys said their client was suffering from an oxycodone addiction and was trying to quit using drugs when he began to think about suicide. It is not known how his drug addiction started, and a lawyer for Murdaugh did not answer questions about whether he had ever sought treatment for his drug addiction or whether his family and colleagues knew the extent of it. .
Opioid experts have said painkiller addiction can get expensive, especially after federal and state authorities like South Carolina cracked down on prescriptions and sales through drug watch programs, which have pushed drug addicts inadvertently enter the black market.
For example, 20 milligram oxycontin pills could cost around $ 25 each, Andrews said.
“You can accumulate tens of thousands of six-figure dollars over the course of the year,” she added.
And if a drug dealer knows that his client is a wealthy person who wants to keep a low profile, we don’t know what his addiction can cost. “This is not an industry known for its higher standards of ethics,” said Andrews, who studies the treatment of opioid use disorders in Medicaid recipients.
South Carolina has been inundated with devastating opioids.
Drug overdose deaths in the state – the vast majority from opioids, including fentanyl and heroin – have increased by more than 50% in 2020, according to a preliminary report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer. Nationally, there have been 93,000 drug overdoses – most of them opioid-related – the highest figure in 12 months and an increase of almost 30% from 2019.
South Carolina ranked fourth among states for the largest increase in fatal overdoses last year, behind Vermont, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Experts say lockdowns and restrictions during the pandemic have likely left drug users and people with addictions isolated and without their normal treatments.
While prescription pain relievers were once the root of the country’s overdose epidemic, they have been supplanted first by heroin and then by the dangerously potent opioid fentanyl in recent years. Fentanyl was developed to treat severe pain caused by diseases like cancer, but it is increasingly sold illegally and mixed with other drugs.
“What is really causing the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned supply of drugs,” Shannon Monnat, associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, told The Associated Press. studies the geographic patterns of overdoses. “Almost all of this increase is somehow fentanyl contamination. “
Authorities in South Carolina have been looking for ways to break down the underground market for opioids and illicit drugs. In July, Hampton County authorities’ “Operation Pentagon” identified at least 19 people involved in the distribution of heroin, fentanyl and other drugs.
In recent years, various counties have sued drug companies and doctors for their role in the opioid crisis.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who called opioids a “scourge,” signed a bill in August to expand access to naloxone, the life-saving drug in overdose.
Andrews said funding for treatment is key to solving the problem, as is finding ways to reduce the stigma of addiction.
“Drug addiction is a powerful disease,” she said. “As we have seen, this can lead to fuzzy decision making and underestimation of risks.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call National lifeline for suicide prevention at 800-273-8255, text HOME at 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/ressources for additional resources.