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Cherokee Nation sues opioid distributors over worsening crisis

by Carter Sherman
Apr 20 2017, 11:34pm

The Cherokee Nation sued six of the nation’s top drug distributors and retailers Thursday, alleging that the companies illegally allowed prescription painkillers to flood the tribal community, worsening a devastating opioid crisis while lining their own pockets.

The civil lawsuit claims that these companies violated sovereign Cherokee laws aimed at staunching the illegal flow of opioids to the black market, failing to provide proper oversight, and “[turning] a blind eye to the problem of opioid diversion.” While city and county governments have sued drug distributors before for their role in furthering local opioid epidemics — and their associated costs — this is the first such lawsuit to be filed in tribal court.

Pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart are named in the 52-page suit, as are the distributors McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, and Amerisourcebergen. Those three companies collectively control about 85 percent of the nation’s prescription drug distribution.

“Cherokee Nation society is saturated with highly addictive opioid painkillers diverted from Defendants’ supply chains, thereby ensuring that Cherokee Nation citizens will continue to suffer from addiction rates higher than national averages and, commensurately, that Defendants will continue to profit by supplying opioids to the area,” reads the lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified damages. “This civil lawsuit is the Cherokee Nation’s only remaining weapon to fight against the worsening opioid-abuse epidemic that Defendants have caused in the Cherokee Nation.”

Alcohol and drug abuse is disproportionately high among American Indians and Alaska Natives, but both groups have been hit particularly hard by the opioid crisis. Their rates of death from prescription opioid abuse nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2013, according to the Indian Health Service. Cherokee Nation is especially plagued by such abuse, since Oklahoma — where most of its 317,000 citizens live — leads the nation in opioid addiction.

“For adults within the Cherokee Nation, overdose deaths now outnumber deaths due to car accidents,” the lawsuit alleges. Though the lawsuit says that Cherokee Nation doctors have taken “proactive measures” to fight opioid abuse within the tribal healthcare system, almost 13 percent of American Indians have used OxyContin by the 12th grade. Opioid abuse has left Cherokee Nation society riddled with social problems such as child abuse, poverty, and criminal behavior, the lawsuit says, which in turn has decreased the tribal government’s ability to funnel resources toward social programs.

Of the more than 33,000 people who died from opioid overdoses in 2015, more than half of all cases involved prescription pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Cherokee Nation lawsuit follows in the mold of several lawsuits in West Virginia, which has the highest opioid overdose rate in the nation. Last month, the Washington state city of Everett also sued OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, alleging that Purdue Pharma did nothing to stop the drug from being illegally channeled into Everett’s black market.