One of the largest Indigenous tribes in the United States is suing a group of companies that includes Walmart and Walgreens, accusing them of fuelling the opioid epidemic in their communities.

The Cherokee Nation, whose territory spans 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma, filed the lawsuit this week in the Cherokee Nation District Court, naming AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and pharmacies CVS Health and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. as defendants.

"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," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker in a statement.

Up to 720 pills per citizen

The tribe said that deaths from opioid-related overdoses have more than doubled within the Cherokee Nation in the past decade — surpassing the number of deaths from car crashes.

Citing figures from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the tribe also accused companies of prescribing an estimated 845 million milligrams of opioids in the 14 counties of the Cherokee Nation in 2015. That averages out to between 360 and 720 pills per year for every prescription opioid user in the Cherokee Nation, which has over 300,000 citizens.

The lawsuit says that the companies need to do a better job of alerting authorities when large or suspicious orders —which may allow pills to enter the black market — are filled.

Chief Bill John Baker

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said his people are 'crippled' by the opioid epidemic. (Cherokee Nation)

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

"We deserve better."

Targeting the sources

The lawsuit was applauded by Bryn Wesch, the head of Novus Medical Detox Center, a national drug treatment facility headquartered in Florida. She said better monitoring standards are needed when it comes to prescribing opioids.

"How can a doctor prescribe 1,000 pills to a single individual in a day and not have it be a problem?" she said. 

But Wesch said the drug manufacturers themselves should also be held responsible for the opioid crisis. 

"They're supposed to know their customers, they're supposed to track where their product goes, and they're the ones who are making millions in profits off of it."

Companies respond

According to the Associated Press, Walmart and McKesson haven't responded to the suit, while Walgreens said it doesn't comment on pending legal cases.

Cardinal Health said in a statement that it will defend itself against the allegations and believes the lawsuit does 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."

A spokesperson from AmerisourceBergen said the company already stops the shipment of orders it believes are suspicious.

"The issue of opioid abuse is a complex one that spans the full health-care spectrum, including manufacturers, wholesalers, insurers, prescribers, pharmacists and regulatory and enforcement agencies," the spokesperson said.

'David and Goliath'

"I tip my hat to the Cherokee Nation," said Norman Boudreau, a Winnipeg-based lawyer who often represents First Nations and has launched several large class-action lawsuits in recent years against companies like Volkswagen.

Boudreau said such a lawsuit is possible in Canada, where a similar opioid crisis has gripped Indigenous communities — but it would be costly and ultimately a David and Goliath-type battle. If First Nations launching such a suit lost, they would probably be on the hook for potentially costly legal fees, he added.

"Pharmaceutical companies have the money and would defend themselves quite fiercely," Boudreau said.

As the third-largest tribe in the U.S., the Cherokee are also among the wealthiest and contribute nearly $2 billion to Oklahoma's economy, according to a recent study.

With files from the Associated Press