POISON PILL

Cherokee Nation Sues Opioid Distributors, Retailers for Drug Epidemic

The tribe’s lawyers claim the companies ‘consciously oversupplied’ the market in and around Cherokee Nation with highly addictive prescription opioids.

The Cherokee Nation has filed a lawsuit in tribal court accusing the country’s top pharmacies and drug distributors of pumping its 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma with highly addictive pain pills, endangering its citizens.

Lawyers claim that the companies—McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS Health, Walgreens, and Walmart—“consciously oversupplied” the market in and around Cherokee Nation with prescription opioids, used unsafe distribution and dispensing practices, and failed to report suspicious orders.

Combined, McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen control about 85 percent of prescription drug distribution in the nation. The suit claims the companies were negligent in their actions and broke sovereign Cherokee law when failing to prevent the flow of the drugs to the black market.

“It’s a problem for the entire country,” Chuck Hoskin, the secretary of state for Cherokee Nation, told Stat News. “But we are up against it in Cherokee Country.”

For adults within the Cherokee Nation, overdose deaths now outnumber deaths due to car accidents. By their senior year of high school, almost 13 percent of American Indian teens have already used OxyContin. In general, American Indians are more likely than other racial or ethnic group in the United States to die from drug-induced deaths, the suit claims.

“These impacts are so severe, cumulatively, that Defendants’ conduct threatens to decimate the Cherokee Nation,” the 54-page filing says. There are about 177,000 Cherokee Nation citizens who live within the 14 counties.

Oklahoma currently leads the nation in the abuse of prescription painkillers. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, more than 2.75 billion milligrams of opioids were distributed in the state in 2015.

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

This case is the first of its kind in the U.S., according to the suit. No other Indian nation has ever sought damages for the disproportionate harm caused by pain pills in its community.

Baker said, “As we fight this epidemic in our hospitals, our schools and our Cherokee homes, we will also use our legal system to make sure the companies, who put profits over people while our society is crippled by this epidemic, are held responsible for their actions.”

The civil action doesn’t name a specific dollar amount but seeks injunctive relief, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

The suit claims the companies “turned a blind eye to the problem of opioid diversion and profited from the sale of prescription opioids to the citizens of the Cherokee Nation in quantities that far exceeded the number of prescriptions that could reasonably have been used for legitimate medical purposes.”

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Lawyers reportedly filed the action in tribal court in hopes that it would enable them faster access to internal company records, which might reveal how much the companies were aware of the drugs being diverted in the area.

A spokesman for CVS told the Washington Post that the company “is committed to the highest standards of ethics and business practices, including complying with all federal and state laws governing the dispensing of controlled substance prescriptions, and is dedicated to reducing prescription drug abuse and diversion.”

Cardinal Health said in a statement on Thursday that it planned to "vigorously defend ourselves against the plaintiff's mischaracterization."

“We believe these lawsuits do not advance the hard work needed to solve the opioid abuse crisis—an epidemic driven by addiction, demand and the diversion of medications for illegitimate use,” said a spokesperson.

The others included in the suit did not comment on the allegations, according to the Post.

In a similar suit, seven counties in West Virginia last month filed cases against many of the same companies, seeking billions of dollars based on the claims that they created a public health hazard by shipping huge amounts of controlled substances into the state. West Virginia has the highest prescription drug overdose rate in the country.

Last May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, M.D., met with tribal leaders in the region to discuss prescription drug abuse and opioid addiction. He noted that “the prescription opioid epidemic is sweeping across the U.S. and has hit Indian country particularly hard.”

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said, “We will not stand by while children are born addicted to opioids and our citizens die.”