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NEGLIGENCE

A US town with a population of 105,000 is suing a drugmaker for ignoring illegal OxyContin sales

The building front of Purdue Pharmaceutical Industries
AP Photo/Douglas Healey
Under legal fire.
  • Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The people of Snohomish County in western Washington are all too familiar with the opioid epidemic.

Between 2011 and 2013, the rate of deaths related to heroin—a cheap drug opioid addicts often turn to once they are addicted to more expensive prescription painkillers like OxyContin—ranged from six to eight deaths (pdf) per 100,000 people in Snohomish County. For comparison, Washington state’s average was between three and five.

About a third of the county deaths occurred in a town called Everett, which has a population of just over 105,000. On Jan. 19, Everett’s mayor, Ray Stephanson, announced plans to sue Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which makes OxyContin, for knowingly turning a blind eye to illegal sales of the drug.

In July 2016, the LA Times published a massive investigation of a network of pill-pushing prescribers and pharmacists operating in California in 2008 and 2009. Over the course of a few months, one medical professional at a clinic called Lake Medical prescribed thousand of pills, sometimes exceeding in a week the number of pills local pharmacies would usually provide in a month. These highly addictive pills were then sold illegally on the streets, sometimes through gang members.

According to emails obtained by the LA Times, Purdue employees were aware of these massive orders, but failed to report them to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). One sales manager of the Stamford, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company said in an email that she believed the DEA should be informed about the orders because she suspected an illegal drug ring, but that the company didn’t follow through until there were 1.1 million pills on the black market years later.

Stephanson and the town are suing Purdue for negligence because some of these illegally sold pills made it up to Everett, and, the town argues, caused the high rates of heroin addiction and overdoses. “Purdue’s improper actions of placing profits over the welfare of the citizens of Everett have caused and will continue to cause substantial damages to Everett,” lawyers from Everett wrote in a complaint filed in the state Superior court, according to the LA Times.

Everett saw a massive spike in homelessness related to drug use, and Snohomish County’s one detox center has been overwhelmed; they only have enough beds to serve about 10% of the population in need any given night. The Times also reported that in 2016, Everett spent “$160,000 removing trash from a single city block that has become an open-air drug market.”

This isn’t the first time Purdue has been sued for damages related to the US opioid epidemic. They’ve have hundreds of lawsuits brought to them, and in one instance paid over $600,000 in federal fines for falsely underrepresenting OxyContin’s addictive properties through advertisements. This is the first case, though, where city officials want to hold the company responsible for ignoring drug sales they knew were illegal.

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