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Cherokee nation sues opioid drug distributors

Complaint alleges distributors and retailers are responsible for the opioid crisis

Photo (c) steheap - Fotolia
The opioid drug crisis in the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds. States have seen their drug treatment costs soar as more consumers become hooked on the powerful painkillers.

Attorneys for the Cherokee nation have filed suit against McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., AmerisourceBergen, CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. The complaint alleges the companies did nothing to prevent the flow of illegally prescribed opioids to members of the Cherokee Nation, including children.

The lawsuit seeks to hold distributors and retailers responsible for the opioid crisis. While opioid addiction is a problem just about everywhere, this suit focuses on the 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma that comprise the Cherokee Nation.

Will other jurisdictions follow suit? Experts believe they will as communities grapple with the financial and social burdens of the opioid epidemic. The drug epidemic has been especially severe in rural states like Maine, Indiana, and West Virginia, so the plaintiffs believe the courts may view them sympathetically.

Greatest challenge

"Tribal nations have survived disease, removal from our homelands, termination and other adversities, and still we prospered. However, I fear the opioid epidemic is emerging as the next great challenge of our modern era," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker.

Baker says the tribe will use the legal system to make sure its communities aren't left alone to pay the price for the opioid epidemic.

The suit claims that both pharmacies and opioid distributers have a legal responsibility to report suspicious orders and illegitimate prescriptions. What exactly constitutes suspicious activities? The suit says these are some examples:

Suspicious activities

  • When a distributor fills a single pharmacy's orders that are suddenly thousands of pills above the average or are disproportionate to the size of the area's population
  • Patterns of employee theft
  • Pharmacy customers seeking opioids for nonmedical purposes.

The suit cites Drug Enforcement Administration figures that show 2.75 billion milligrams of opioids were distributed in Oklahoma in 2015. It further claims some 845 million milligrams were distributed in the 14 counties of the Cherokee Nation. Averaged out, that comes to between 360 and 720 pills per year for every prescription opioid user in the Cherokee Nation.

Aside from the addiction that can arise from repeated opioid use, people die every day from opioid overdose. The suit cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing overdoses more than doubled within the Cherokee Nation between 2003 and 2014. That's more than the number of people who died in car accidents.

"These companies must be held accountable for their gross negligence, which has fueled the opioid epidemic. We deserve better," said Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree.

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