Human beings are capable of incredible things in the midst of grief. Take Dan Schneider, a New Orleans pharmacist, husband to wife Annie and father of two, who was confronted by unimaginable tragedy in 1999: His son Danny Jr. had been murdered in a drug-related shooting. (He was only 22.) Schneider and his wife couldn’t believe it, and in the midst of their shock, they also learned that Danny Jr. had been battling an addiction to crack cocaine, which he’d completely hid from his parents who thought they knew their boy so well. In mourning, Schneider became determined to find his son’s killer, unwilling to wait for the police to do their job. That mission became his obsession.
The new documentary series The Pharmacist, streaming now on Netflix, uses Schneider’s heartsick quest as its starting-off point, but knowing that backstory won’t prepare the audience for where this film and this anguished father eventually go. Most true-crime programs are concerned with bringing the guilty to justice, but for Schneider, that proved to be a far more complicated process. Relatively early on in this four-part, nearly-four-hour series, we learn who killed Danny Jr. — in fact, it turns out to be one of the film’s talking heads — but that’s merely prologue for what would ultimately become this pharmacist’s goal, which was to understand why young people had such easy access to drugs. To his dismay, Schneider came to realize that, as terrible as crack was, another substance was imperiling his community just as badly — opioids — and it was only a doctor’s prescription away.
Directors Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst view their film as a portrait of addiction in many forms — addiction to quick fixes, addiction to money, the obsession of a father to get some sense of closure for his son’s murder — but they’re especially interested in how The Pharmacist looks at America’s opioid crisis. As a pharmacist, Schneider noticed that more and more customers were coming in with scripts for OxyContin, and he was concerned about how relatively able-bodied these people appeared and by the potency of the dosages. Something didn’t seem right, so he started investigating the local doctor who was writing so many of these scripts, Jacqueline Cleggett. He couldn’t get law enforcement to stop her, although he was convinced she was behaving recklessly, so he decided to do something himself. The Pharmacist chronicles his efforts while showing how opioid addiction devastates communities.
But the movie doesn’t stop with Cleggett, taking aim at Purdue Pharma, the family-run company that got rich creating and selling OxyContin, knowing full well about its addictive properties but claiming otherwise.
When I speak to Nason and Furst, who also collaborated on Fyre Fraud and Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, we talk a lot about opioids, but soon the conversation branched out toward the larger implications of their film — namely, how we make peace with the fact that people have always craved ways to lessen their pain, whether that pain be physical or spiritual. What do we do in a world where OxyContin and other medications (legal or illegal) exist?
At the same time, I was curious to know more about Schneider and how this tragedy changed him as a father. For the filmmakers, his story and The Pharmacist’s overriding examination of opioids are inextricably linked. “With everything that was happening in the opioid epidemic, the media was [just] covering the statistics — just covering the fallout,” Jenner says. “But this [documentary] was a human, purely empathetic and organic way to cover a national epidemic.” Not surprisingly, our interview focused on the human cost — as well as what the directors think should happen to Richard Sackler, the former chairman of Purdue that helped mastermind this epidemic.
[Note: This interview contains plot spoilers for The Pharmacist.]
It seems that, culturally, we haven’t yet acknowledged the severity of America’s opioid addiction. It doesn’t feel like we consider it a “crisis” like the War on Drugs.
Furst: Addiction is thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years old, but we have these different, hyper-politicized moments in our history as a country [when we address addiction]. The War on Drugs was a huge engine for mass incarceration and had a huge racial undertone. But if you look at the opioid epidemic, it really boils down to a war on the middle class and working-class folks who used to work in factories or on shrimp boats or worked with their bodies.
There was this wave of “pain management,” and Purdue systematically advertised to doctors that opioids were non-addictive, with this great time-release. So all these working-class people started taking it, and lo and behold, within a couple of days they were hooked, and they had to get more. It’s in their medicine cabinet, so now their kids have access to it. Instead of getting high on marijuana or hallucinogens or other things that folks used to experiment with, you had kids experimenting right in middle school with high-powered opioids. It’s a phenomenon that has affected a huge part of the poor population of America.
What we look at [in the movie] is the bigger through-lines. Pain, addiction, economic hardship… things like this are very evergreen and they’re constantly happening in cycles in American history. What you have with opioids is that, [whether it’s] around the Great Recession or in New Orleans around the time of Katrina, there was so much pain and so much hardship that it was an explosive cocktail for addiction — and for folks to take advantage of those people and to get them hooked.
Part of the problem is that we seem judge-y about people who get hooked on painkillers. There’s this sense that addicts are “bad” because they’re not strong enough not to get addicted.
Nason: It’s that stigma: People don’t see addiction as a disease. Through this story, we wanted to show all the aspects of addiction — from opioids to corporate greed to solving your own son’s murder. There’s all forms of addiction that aren’t just about opioids, and we wanted to tap into that compulsivity and the idea that people don’t understand that it’s not the addict’s fault — [this impression] that they weren’t “strong enough” to put aside a drug like that. People are in a lot of emotional and spiritual pain in this country because of the late-stage capitalist society we live in.
It’s interesting you bring up the idea that Schneider, in a sense, is addicted to his investigation. Was he conscious that his obsession was a way of dealing with his guilt and sorrow?
Nason: In a sense he was conscious, but in a sense he wasn’t. He will be open and humble about the fact that he has compulsive aspects to all this data collection and this unstoppable adrenaline. But we saw he was really trying to fill the deep hole of pain that he had inside from the grief. We saw the grief as fueling his compulsivity to continue to investigate and find justice, which could be seen as a form of addiction.
Can he find any solace in Cleggett being stripped of her license, in large part because of his investigative efforts? Or the fact that The Pharmacist is out in the world? Do those things help at all?
Furst: A couple of days after [Danny Jr.’s] murder, the family [was] in so much grief that they considered all killing themselves simultaneously. The grief was that profound. As a parent, to think that your son’s life was cut short — he had so many years ahead of him, he was so talented and so special, and he had so much to give the world — because of addiction and a tragic murder…
Now flash-forward 20 years later: This story has inspired a whole wave of advocacy and crime-fighting around the opioid epidemic, and it’s now accessible to over 150 million people [through Netflix]. For Dan and Annie, that’s absolutely mind-blowing. In a sense, they’re so grateful that, regardless of what’s happening politically and regardless of the fact that the epidemic hasn’t slowed down, at the very least their son’s name is ringing through the ears of people all around the world.
It will never bring him back, and the grief is as fresh as it ever was. In fact, it’s actually reopened — they were re-traumatized during the production of the film [having] to go back into all of these memories. But they did it with a broader mission that they wanted their son to have life again.
If addiction is hardwired into us, what do we do about opioids?
Furst: It’s all about programs of recovery. It’s about acceptance. It’s about benevolence and care and love when it comes to those who are affected.
It’s not just the opioid epidemic: Look at how many people went to jail for having a single rock of crack cocaine in their pocket. Look at the families that were destroyed by that. Look at the racial disparity between what happened to people who are black and brown, and who are of lower socioeconomic income brackets, who went to jail for 20 and 30 years for small possession. We’re paying attention now because [the opioid crisis] hit a larger swath of the masses and because it’s white working-class victims.
We need to take all of the awareness and all of our compassion — and all of the resources that we’re now willing to throw at this crisis — and think about looking at addiction as a whole, look at how it affects society and think about decriminalizing a lot of aspects of it and allow people a pathway to recovery.
Even Dan himself would say that, as a pharmacist, he had absolutely no compassion for addicts until his son was killed. Now, he’s one of the best advocates for this cause because he himself went through a spiritual transformation to understand that addiction is a disease and that it requires care and open-mindedness and love and treatment. If he’d been able to provide that for Danny Jr., things may have been different. And he lives with that.
It’s remarkable that you got Cleggett to appear on camera. Still, she seemed pretty evasive. Is she just in denial about what she did? Or does she really believe what she’s saying about causing no harm?
Furst: One of the most touching moments of denial for her was to not admit that she herself suffered from the disease of addiction. That was very telling. The DEA uncovered large amounts of opioids that she was taking herself, and that — coupled with an addiction to money and a fear of providing for her children — took an incredibly promising physician who was the top of her class, one of the only African-American female doctors in that town, and walked her down a road of complete demise.
Yes, she’s responsible for her own actions, and she’s responsible for her own lack of accountability. But also there were major forces above her who were pressing down, convincing doctors around the country that this was the right thing to do. Purdue’s crippling addiction to profit misled them in every move. And doctors ended up violating their Hippocratic Oath in the face of profit. Dr. Cleggett is a perfect example of that, but we can understand that she herself had the spiritual malady of addiction, and that she herself was struggling. When you put all of that stuff into a blender, you get a system, you get a country and you get a lot of different aspects of our governing body that are spiritually sick.
We try to have compassion for every single one of our characters. If we were able to interview Richard Sackler, we would have afforded him the same [courtesy]: “Tell us about your childhood. When did you find yourself completely and totally powerless to your profit?” We gave Dr. Cleggett an opportunity to tell us her real story and where she was at in her life, afforded her a certain level of accountability, and still huge amounts of denial were made.
The Pharmacist draws a comparison between Purdue’s behavior and that of the tobacco industry decades earlier. Do you see them operating similarly?
Furst: I’d say they are, and I’d go even further to say that we still have a bunch of lingering things that play upon people’s addictive tendencies that haven’t had a reckoning yet — like social media and digital devices. It’s funny the way that executives for these companies turn their Wi-Fi off at night and put their cellphones in closets and don’t allow their kids to look at tablets. What does that tell you? Parallel that to the 1960s when a cigarette executive probably wouldn’t let their grandchildren smoke. There is, at a corporate level, full and total awareness of who they are preying on and how.
In this society we have, time after time, seen large periods of denial — sometimes up to 20, 30, 40 years. Look at the effect of sugar in obesity and diabetes. I mean, there’s so many different things you could point to, and whether it’s the FDA, Congress or the Department of Justice, [there’s] no accountability for the fact that citizens around this world have been preyed upon by corporate interests.
Nason: Addiction creates profit. It’s key in this society.
And because pain isn’t going away anytime soon, we crave things to help us feel better.
Nason: The human condition is to experience pain, and numbing out is a “solution.” But the problem we see, time and time again, is with numbing out — the sequestering of pain with drugs, sex or internet addiction — that the pain stays. You’re just going around it — you’re not going through it or really processing it. You’re in a form of denial that makes the pain implode bigger inside of you and creates more spiritual sickness.
Furst: We’ve seen actual spiritual transformations happen in the families of those who have lost loved ones. And you can look back to Biblical times — this is a story that’s an archetype. It takes a certain type of transformation for an “everyday person” caught in the rat wheel of American life to all of a sudden step out and say, “Wait a second, not only does my life have purpose, but I have to do something. And I’m grateful for all the things that have happened for me because I know that I have a bigger purpose.”
So many of the stories that we try to foster [in our films] are stories that follow that arc of individuals who’ve been faced with unthinkable pain who have transformed it into a movement. Dan Schneider is the poster child of that: There’s something you can do with this pain. There’s something you can do with this grief. It can actually go forward to change the world.
That makes me think of Karl Marx’s line about religion being the opiate of the masses. Schneider talks about his faith a lot in The Pharmacist, and how it helped him during those difficult years, but isn’t that its own kind of addiction — another way to numb pain?
Furst: There is an addiction to jingoistic religious movements. But spirituality and true acknowledgement of powerlessness and the idea of faith in a power greater than yourself — which is what the road to recovery and addiction is, and what the road to recovery and grief can be — is something totally different than a mass-market church or people sending money to Billy Graham.
We have to be open to the fact that the great unifier globally is that many people do, in fact, believe in a power greater than themselves. And so, when Dan would talk about his belief in God, it didn’t matter to us what congregation he went to or what kind of religious denomination he was part of. We understood it the same way as when [Trayvon Martin’s parents] Tracy [Martin] and Sybrina [Fulton] would talk about their belief in God — and how they had to pray to God when they were in the courtroom sitting next to George Zimmerman. This is a very transcendental, powerful idea for us that has nothing to do with mainstream religion. It’s about true spirituality.
It’s also impressive that you get Danny Jr.’s killer, Jeffrey Hall, to talk on camera. How difficult was it to convince him to open up?
Furst: Well, everything in our business is “difficult.” [laughs] But there’s an old saying: “Real recognizes real.” When we sit down with someone and we have a conversation about what it is we’re trying to do — where we’re going to point our lens — we take special care to make sure that we’re capable of delivering on the things that we propose to our subjects. When we sat down with Jeffrey, we told him that we wanted to talk about where he came from, how hard his childhood was, give him a second to reflect on that on camera and, in a sense, make right on this horrible thing that he regrets his entire life.
When we sit with [an interview subject], we ask them to look at our past work and look at the way we’ve dealt with our subjects. And time and time again, folks come to the table because they believe that we’re going to do their story justice. We’re not going to re-engineer things and change the facts to benefit them. We’re going to actually do the story justice objectively.
Schneider must have known you’d be talking to Hall. How did he feel about that?
Furst: Dan and Annie did see Jeffrey in prison later during his [incarceration]. And they did come face-to-face after the whole ordeal, so they’ve had some closure together. But there’s really only so much… It’s not like everybody’s going to go have a picnic together. This is the person who was responsible for taking their son’s life. And no matter how guilty he feels or how much remorse he feels, there’s still that direct connection to the biggest loss in their lives.
Dan is very open-minded about the societal conditions that led Jeffrey to behave the way he did and what he was facing. I think Annie is too. But as a mother, it’s very hard, on a visceral level, for her to think about these things. I mean, there was an occasion in the middle of an interview where she got physically sick remembering the trauma — and that’s 20 years later.
I’ve never interviewed a murderer. What was it like to spend time with Hall?
Furst: [Julia and I] both carry with us a great deal of empathy for the twists and turns that life may throw at someone — and also deep senses of regret in talking to people that have spent 20, 40 years in penitentiaries thinking about the things that they’ve done. What we do is we try to have empathy for those folks because, when you really look at it, what jail did Richard Sackler go to? What jail did all these other people go to? When did those people spend a night in prison for killing a hundred thousand people? I mean, when you think about the vast disparity between justice served for someone like Jeffrey Hall and Richard Sackler…
We understand people make grave mistakes, and sometimes mistakes are so great that they can never be taken back and there’s nothing that can be done to erase the pain. It takes a great deal of humility for someone to go on screen and confess that they killed someone — and that their life has never been the same since. It becomes educational for all the kids who are at risk of pulling a trigger without realizing the actual outcome. They don’t understand the great pain that arises from taking someone’s life.
Did Schneider ever talk to you about how his son’s death changed him as a father? I can’t imagine going through something so traumatic and it not having some sort of impact in terms of how he raised his daughter afterward.
Nason: Before his son was killed, he had no understanding of addiction. He talked to us about how, when he went to pharmacy school, they didn’t even touch on that. His whole world opened up to the disease when his son was killed — and what was behind his son actually getting killed. His son put himself in a dangerous place because the disease led him there.
That [tragedy] made him a dad, in a sense, to all the young kids that came into his pharmacy. He looked at them and saw his son in their eyes. That father-like quality expanded to his whole community out of his son’s death. That’s such a beautiful yet complex and tragic explanation behind the consequences of this disease.
I guess I’m wondering if he “learned” anything about being a better parent from this tragedy.
Nason: I think he questioned the simplicity and the entitlement around his life before his son was killed. Both [he and Annie] had so much guilt that they could have done something — that they should’ve been better parents, that they should’ve known about the addiction, that they should’ve been there. To this day, they still have immense remorse around that. But at the same time, they’re so much more emotionally intelligent that life is so much more complicated than just watching your kid a little closer.
So, I probably already know the answer to this, but what do you think should happen to a guy like Sackler? Jail time?
Furst: It should be jail time, but I also think every single co-conspirator needs to be brought to justice. I want to know the folks in the Justice Department who rubber-stamped this whole thing. I want to know the folks in the FDA who rubber-stamped this whole thing. The distributors. Congress. All of these people are equally as responsible as one greedy company that made some decisions for their profit and their bottom-line. How is it that that became so widely available all across America? They had that much power on their own? We don’t believe that.
We believe in systems, and we believe that the system here in America sponsors these types of bad actors. And rather than just putting them in jail, we want to know all the folks who helped, aided and abetted them in this crime. Is it really Purdue Pharma or is it our entire country? That’s the question.
Nason: We do deeply respect the democratic process. I still have faith in it. And even though there’s been a lot of betrayals and corruption within that, Congress is an essential part of bringing legislation, justice and acknowledgement to these painful epidemics.
It just takes a long time, as we can see with the tobacco industry and now as we can see 20 years later with the opioid epidemic. I think that with all the civil cases in all the states around the country, that’s led a lot of people to wake up in Congress. I think there’s going to be further legislation moving forward and hopefully funds toward certain aspects of addiction treatment. But it’s a complicated and frustrating solution.