After a ten-week-long trial, the former billionaire founder of Insys Therapeutics, John Kapoor, was found guilty this past week of bribing physicians and lying to insurance companies in order to drive and maximize sales of the company’s highly addictive fentanyl-based pain medication, Subsys. Four other top-level company executives were also found guilty. The verdict came after more than two weeks of jury deliberations.

Charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering, mail and wire fraud were originally filed against Kapoor and six other former company executives in October of 2017. Two of the accused, former CEO Michael Babich and ex-vice president of sales Alec Burlakoff, eventually entered guilty pleas and testified for the prosecution against the other five. In addition to Kapoor, the defendants included former company sales director Richard Simon, regional sales directors Sunrise Lee and Joseph Rowan, and Michael Gurry, the former vice president of Managed Markets for Insys.

All five defendants face 20-year prison sentences,  meaning that Kapoor, now age 76, could spend his remaining years behind bars.

The product at the center of the case against Kapoor is a synthetic opioid-based medication. Fentanyl was originally developed by Janssen Pharmaceutica in the late 1950s. Fifty times more potent than heroin, as little as 2 milligrams can be fatal. In 2016, fentanyl was responsible for more than 18,000 drug overdose deaths, accounting for nearly a third of such fatalities.

Acting US Attorney General William Weinreb said, “We must hold the industry and its leadership accountable – just as we would the cartels or a street-level drug dealer.” The recent verdict against Kapoor and his co-defendants indicate that the federal government is finally moving forward on doing just that.

Thursday’s convictions represent the first time that top-level pharmaceutical company executives have been successfully prosecuted and convicted for illegal marketing of opioids. Hopefully, it will not be the last. In April, federal authorities filed felony drug trafficking charges against Rochester Drug Cooperative and two of its former executives on charges of shipping opioid medications to pharmacies that have been illegally distributing the products.

The recent verdicts against Kapoor and his fellow Insys executives indicate that more criminal charges against pharmaceutical companies and their executives may be coming in the future. Speaking to the New York Times, University of Kentucky law professor Richard C. Ausness said that filing criminal charges against these corporate felons “raises the stakes by a lot” – and the recent verdict demonstrates that juries are willing to mete out the same justice for a corporate criminal as they would a street-level drug dealer.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.