PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As the opioid epidemic raged on across the nation, few residents of Coventry, Rhode Island knew their small suburban community was home to an opioid-producing powerhouse.
But from 2006 to 2014, two companies in a nondescript Washington Street industrial complex produced a staggering amount of opioid products — 1.25 billion drug doses and nearly 20% of the raw oxycodone sold in the U.S. during that period. Even fewer people knew that the two companies, Rhodes Pharmaceuticals and Rhodes Technologies, had close corporate ties to Purdue Pharma, the now notorious drugmaker at the heart of the opioid epidemic. Even after Purdue executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to misleading the public about the dangers of its painkiller Oxycontin, the Rhodes companies were diversifying their opioid offerings and ramping up production.
Those facts about Rhodes, aired recently by the Public’s Radio in Rhode Island, were unearthed by Brown University student (now alumnus) Hal Triedman as part of a data-intensive investigation into the state’s opioid epidemic conducted by a team of Brown journalism and computer science students.
Over the course of nearly two years, the team of 17 students dug deep into datasets acquired from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Providence Police Department, Rhode Island Judiciary and more than a dozen other sources. The work uncovered patterns of overdose deaths across Rhode Island, documented the flow of opioid medications into the state and revealed new details about how the criminal justice system deals with opioid use disorder. The data-driven pieces were combined with personal stories of real people impacted by the epidemic firsthand — a woman who made the journey from addiction to advocacy, or people who found themselves raising their grandchildren after losing their own children to addiction.
The Public’s Radio broadcast multiple stories from the students’ series, and another was published by the Boston Globe. The rest of the stories — 32 in total — are available on the project’s website.
Triedman, who graduated in December 2020, says he’s deeply proud of what the team accomplished, even if the work uncovered some dark realities about an epidemic that still claims lives across the U.S. every day.
“It has changed my sense of what justice looks like and means, and what accountability looks like,” he said. “It maybe has made me a little bit more cynical. But ultimately the point of this kind of journalism is to try to hold people to account.”