Thursday, March 16, 2017 by Vicki Batts
OxyContin has practically become synonymous with the opioid epidemic currently plaguing the United States. The infamous drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, reportedly reeled in over $3 billion in profits from OxyContin by 2010 — but these profits have come with a deadly price. In 2015, over 15,000 people died from an overdose involving a prescribed opioid and the CDC reports that approximately half of all over dose deaths in the U.S. are related to prescription opioids of some kind.
In recent years, several cities and states have sought to hold the pharmaceutical companies behind the drugs accountable for their role in the proliferation of opioid drug addiction. Purdue Pharma, which is widely considered to be the company that started it all, has paid out millions upon millions of dollars in settlements over the course of the last decade or so. The state of Kentucky, for example, filed suit against the drug company for “fraud, conspiracy and negligence in the development and marketing” of their star drug, OxyContin. Purude reportedly settled that suit for $24 million, but no admission of wrongdoing was ever uttered.
Purdue has a laundry list of legal complaints frequently related to their aggressive and misleading marketing tactics. The pharma giant has come under fire for billing OxyContin as a 12-hour drug, despite knowing that in many people, it wears off far sooner than that — and leaves consumers writhing for more as they experience narcotic withdrawal.
A new lawsuit filed by lawmakers from the city of Everett, Washington, has a different sort of spin on it: they claim that Purdue Pharma knew that their drug was being illegally trafficked, and did nothing to stop it.
Washington state officials are accusing the drug company for gross negligence, and they have proof.
The lawsuit follows a massive investigation led by the Los Angeles Times that traced illegally prescribed pills from LA up and down the West Coast. Reporter Harriet Ryan, who was part of the investigative team, recently spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin.
During the interview, Ryan explained that it all started with a fake clinic in downtown LA where corrupt physicians were writing hefty prescriptions of opioids to the homeless. The drug ring would then take the homeless person to the pharmacy to fill their prescription and inevitably, the pills were then being sold in cities along the coast. Ryan believes huge quantities of these so-called medications were being illegally trafficked throughout the western portion of the U.S.
Eventually, an employee of Purdue Pharma noticed what was going on, and flagged the behavior as “suspicious.” The pharma giant apparently does have security in place to monitor for diversion of their pills, and the corporation even launched an investigation of the clinic’s lead prescription-writing doctor. Their investigation led them to decide the doctor should “go on a list that the company maintains of physicians that are suspected of misprescribing or colluding with drug dealers and addicts.”
Of course, this “list” did not ensure that the company would report what they knew or suspected to law enforcement. Instead, Purdue chose to wait until three years after the drug ring had shut down for other reasons to give up what information they had to the U.S. Attorney General’s office in LA.
Purdue’s actions in this drug arena — or rather, their lack of action — are what have prompted Everett’s lawsuit. But this lawsuit is different than others because the city is saying Purdue knew about the black market trade of their products and did nothing to stop it. As Ryan puts it, “And Everett is suing solely on that basis and saying, you are responsible for the damage that criminals did to our town with your product.”
How the lawsuit will pan out for the city of Everett is still up for debate. Some legal experts believe that they have a shot because Purdue’s own internal records show that they had evidence of illegal drug trafficking. But others say it’s a long-shot.
This also begs the question: what else do they know and haven’t reported? Who knows how many other unreported doctors and clinics are on that little list of theirs; there could be hundreds of people on that list engaging in illegal activity.
Should Purdue be held accountable for their failure to report a suspected drug trafficking ring — and the consequences their failure has had on communities across the West Coast?