Why one U.S. city is suing the maker of OxyContin over its opioid epidemic
As communities across North America struggle to cope with the fallout of opioid addiction, last week, the city of Everett, Washington, filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, alleging that the company helped fuel the opioid crisis in their city.
Purdue Pharma manufactures the drug OxyContin. It has faced hundreds of lawsuits over the years, but the legal action by Everett is little different. The city is trying to hold Purdue accountable for the criminal sales of its drug.
The suit builds on a Los Angeles Times investigation, which followed the path of OxyContin being sold on the black market in Los Angeles, to the city just north of Seattle.
How reporters stumbled upon Everett, WA
Harriet Ryan is one of the reporters who worked the L.A. Times OxyContin series. As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, their investigation began with a drug ring in Los Angeles that was able to acquire more than 1 million OxyContin pills.
"They were a wholesale organization, and they sold their drugs to many different mid-range drug dealers, who then trafficked them out of the city," explains Ryan. "We were trying to find out where the pills ended up."
Their investigation led them on a path from L.A. to Everett, Washington.
"We'd never heard of the town before we started our research, but we were able to map a little part of the trafficking route to this small city," she says. "When we got there we said 'hey, did you guys have an OxyContin problem?' And they said, 'let us tell you about it.'"
A lot of people … experimented with what they initially saw was the cosmopolitan party drug that they would do on the weekends.- Harriet Ryan
Today, Everett is struggling with a heroin addiction crisis, but there was a time, before OxyContin, that the city was not overrun with drug problems.
"When OxyContin poured into the town, a lot of people who were unfamiliar with the drug – young adults, teenagers, professional people – experimented with what they initially saw was a cosmopolitan party drug that they would do on the weekends," says Ryan.
Unfortunately, many of those casual users became addicted.
"They lost their jobs, their families, their house, and many of them their lives."
What Purdue knew
Ryan references internal records obtained through the L.A. Times investigation, which show that Purdue carried out its own investigation into how OxyContin was being distributed. She describes it as a "mini DEA," referring to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"They realized that this clinic in Los Angeles, a sort of a front for criminals obtaining large amounts of OxyContin, was colluding with some dirty pharmacies in L.A. to get their hands on these pills," explains Ryan.
Documents show that the Purdue investigative team discussed what to do with this information about the L.A. clinic.
"There was at least one person inside the company who was saying, 'this is organized crime, we need to report this to the DEA'." says Ryan.
But by the time the company did approach the DEA, Ryan says there were already upwards of a million pills that had spilled onto the black market.
The investigation found that Purdue did not know who the users were, but that they were aware of pills being made available "outside of legitimate medical channels."
Impact on Everett
Sitting just under a three-hour drive away from the Vancouver border, today Everett is facing a heroin crisis, with evidence that Fentanyl is making its way into county. In its lawsuit against Purdue, the city alleges that the current addiction crisis is directly attributable to the company's "wrongful and tortious conduct."
"They had an addiction, they didn't know what to do. OxyContin wasn't available; heroin was available."- Harriet Ryan
In 2010, Purdue reformulated OxyContin to make it more difficult to abuse. But as Ryan notes, scientific research and anecdotal evidence show that the reformulation left users looking for other drugs to use.
"They wanted to avoid withdrawal," she explains. "They had an addiction, they didn't know what to do, OxyContin wasn't available; heroin was available."
That sentiment is echoed by Everett's public health and safety director, Hil Kaman.
"As OxyContin pills were flooding into the black market, they were entering the streets of Everett," says Kaman. "It created a surge of individuals who were becoming addicted to prescription pain pills, particularly OxyContin, and that had an effect on our community."
Kaman says drug-related crimes began to increase, as did the number of homeless people living on the streets of Everett.
"We believe that the behaviour of Purdue is part of a larger pattern where they place their own profit over the negative consequences of their actions."
This is the first case against Purdue involving a municipality wanting to hold the manufacturer accountable for criminal sales of its drug.
Ryan says she continues to be concerned about the opioid crisis, and she's curious to see how the lawsuit will play out.
"I want everyone to take personal responsibility for their behaviour. The addicts, the doctors, law enforcement and the pharmaceutical companies, for the way that they have contributed to the opioid epidemic."