Is Dopesick a true story? The real-life crisis behind the show


Dopesick is a limited television series that depicts America’s opioid crisis and the drug that started it all: OxyContin. However, it’s not the drug that deserves blame; it’s Purdue Pharma, OxyContin’s manufacturer, that aggressively pushed the drug, creating an opioid epidemic that still plagues America today. 

Dopesick, partly based on Beth Macy’s non-fiction book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, pulls no punches as it reveals who is to blame for America’s 21st-century drug crisis. The series has received positive reviews from critics and garnered numerous award nominations. 

Dopesick is based on true stories about the American opioid crisis. 

Beth Macy’s extensive coverage of the drug crisis in Appalachia culminated in the book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America. While pondering several Hollywood offers, Macy met Danny Strong, who’d already set up an opioid addiction project. 

The pair collaborated to infuse authenticity into Strong’s scripts. Beth and Strong conducted research, interviewed victims, and consulted a doctor who’d been addicted to OxyContin. “Because we were documenting the crimes of Purdue Pharma, the show needed to feel as real as possible,” Macy told NPR.

Strong told that the creators hired lawyers to guarantee the scripts were factual. He explained: “We had several Disney lawyers go through every script with a fine tooth comb. The Sackler family constantly threatens people with lawsuits and litigation as a bullying tactic.”

“They actually never sue, but they constantly threaten it. So we had, like I said, a team of lawyers and researchers going through the scripts to make sure that they were factually accurate in their portrayal of the key events.”

The show’s fictionalized characters tell true stories about the effects of opioid addiction

Several of the show’s characters, including Dr. Samuel Finnix, are fictionalized but tell true stories. Strong told NPR that though Dr. Finnix doesn’t exist, real doctors who struggled with opioid dependency contributed to his story. Danny said:

“If I made these characters composite characters, I [could] get way more of these anecdotes into these arcs with fewer characters and get more truthful stories into the show.”

“By fictionalizing, I wouldn’t be stuck to the truth of one person’s life. I could use as many anecdotes as I wanted. I could achieve a more universal truth; a higher truth.”

Some characters in the show mirror real-life people, including members of the Sackler family and the attorneys who led the investigation into Purdue Pharma. Dopesick outrightly blames the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma as the villains of the story. It shows how the company’s financial might suppressed attempts to expose its unethical practices. 

Facing increased pressure, Purdue accepted responsibility for sparking and fueling the opioid crisis. The Sacklers maintain they did nothing wrong. NPR’s addiction correspondent said:

“I’ve been in West Virginia, Ohio, communities that have been devastated by this public health crisis and it seems unlikely that corporations or their leaders involved in the opioid business will be held accountable.”

Purdue is set to be restructured as a public benefit organization dedicated to combating the opioid crisis. A message on the company’s website says the bankruptcy court has approved the plan. It continues:

“The Plan will deliver billions in value to communities across the country to fund programs specifically for abatement of the opioid crisis. Substantially all of Purdue’s assets will be transferred to a new company with a public-minded mission.”

It was essential to Beth Macy that the show accurately depicted Appalachia

Beth Macy
Beth Macy | Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Before writing her book, Beth spent many years documenting the lives of the Appalachian people. She based Dopesick on those stories, so it was important to her that the series accurately depicted Appalachia. She told NPR:

“Appalachia has just been dumped on for over a century to be honest, and I just wanted to make sure that we treated as accurately and with humanity. Appalachians are real people, and they’ve suffered more than the average Americans.”

Strong and Macy hired Robert Gipe, a graphic novelist, to vet details about Appalachia. “We wanted the viewer to come away with the story of what really happened out there,” Macy said. “So many people haven’t been to these small communities that have just been decimated.”

Purdue targeted small-town residents from mining communities in Appalachia since they were prone to injury as manual laborers. Macy continued:

“The portrayal of Appalachia was a huge priority for me. I know how much backlash there has been over [other] projects…I came into this knowing this is very sensitive and that I’m going to need to get this right.”