In his book, “American Pain,” John Temple tells the story of the king of Florida pill mills, a mega-clinic expressly created to serve addicts posing as patients, and how it helped tip the nation into its current opioid crisis, the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.
Managing Editor Jennifer Gardner spoke to Temple about the book and how he went about investigating and writing the book.
Q. How did you become interested in the pain clinic?
A. I read a short article about the pain clinic. Just living here and having seen how devastating the opioid epidemic has been, I was always really curious about it—how it happened and why it happened. This pain clinic was so big, so overt. They were basically dealing drugs but no one could do anything about it. I just thought it was such a crazy story, I had to write it.
Q. How did you begin your investigation into the story?
A. I spent about three or four months just reading, because I came into the subject not knowing that much about it. I read government reports, news articles, magazine stories and a ton of court documents related to this criminal case. I wanted to become familiar with the subject as a whole and understand it before I delved into it. I also went to a big annual conference around the big prescription drug epidemic in Florida. So I met a lot of people there, like speakers and experts. Then I began going and reaching out to the people involved in the case. A bunch of them are in prison, so I wrote them letters and started doing interviews over the phone with the ones who would talk to me. Eventually, I went and visited some of them. I just traveled to Florida a bunch of times and interviewed a bunch of those who were (not in prison). It just sort of started coming together that way.
Q. Did you run into any roadblocks while you were collecting information?
A. Oh my gosh, yeah. Probably the biggest roadblock was that there was an ongoing criminal case related to one of the doctors. Early on, there was a trial that I went to, and then the doctors were convicted, but then there were appeals. So the biggest issue there was that the FBI and the federal prosecutors, who prosecuted this case, would not talk to me for a long time. They wanted to talk but they are not allowed to talk when there’s an ongoing criminal case. They don’t want to say something to me that messes up the case. I did talk to a bunch of people, who were involved with the case, confidentially, a bunch of times, and they indicated that they really want to talk but they were constrained.
Q. How did you overcome this to finish the book?
A. I wrote the whole book, finished the reporting, and I kept trying, throughout that whole period, to talk to them and never could get permission and then I finally said, “I’m turning in the book next week, this is the last chance that I am going (to be able) to get the entire federal government’s side of the story. It’s going to be from all of these other different points of view that are not necessarily that flattering to the federal government.” Then they finally agreed, so I went to Florida and spent three days in the FBI building, talking to all of these people. It was very intense because they had all of these rules, but I got it.
Q. How did your prior experience as a journalist help you while investigating and writing the story?
A. I’m probably not even that aware of it all because it’s sort of second nature. The biggest thing is not really a skill, it’s like an attitude. There’s a million little skills you learn as as you go along when you’re writing and reporting, but the biggest thing I’ve learned over the years is to go in expecting to feel stupid and not know the answer, and that’s okay. I always try to remind myself to be curious, be open to what this person has to say and I hope and I think that it comes across in my writing. I always feel good after an interview if I’ve successfully put myself out there in that way, but feeling stupid is just a big part of the job.