LANSING, Mich. (CN) – Michigan sued a group of opioid distributors Tuesday under a law used to go after illegal drug traffickers, becoming the first state in the nation to treat the pharmaceutical companies like drug dealers in court.
The complaint – filed in Wayne County Circuit Court by the Michigan attorney general’s office along with Michigan-based Sam Bernstein Law Firm and nationwide firm Baron & Budd – claims Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, AmerisourceBergen and Walgreens knowingly failed to control the flow of addictive opioids into the black market, fueling the massive opioid epidemic.
“As the distributors of controlled substances, defendants have special responsibilities to ensure that those drugs did not get into the wrong hands, and to protect the Michigan communities that those companies purport to serve,” the complaint states.
According to the complaint, however, the drugs companies “used their licenses to distribute controlled substances in Michigan as a cover for what is essentially a criminal enterprise.”
The distributors achieved this, Michigan says, by marketing and selling opioid medications well beyond their legitimate medical uses and not taking steps to stop the flood of illicit opioids coming from suspicious orders when they were identified.
The crux of Michigan’s suit revolves around the state’s Drug Dealer Liability Act, first put in place by the Legislature in 1994. The act’s two central principles establish liability based on illegal drugs entering the market in any capacity and focus on “the ultimate harm to society caused by the illegal drug market” rather than a specific determination of how the harm was caused or limiting its scope to a particular drug sale, according to the complaint.
The companies’ failure or unwillingness to stem the tide of black market opioids flowing into Michigan from suspicious orders that they either did not report or notice contributed to the public health epidemic in the state, the lawsuit states.
The Washington Post reported that over 2 billion pills were distributed in Michigan between 2006 and 2012 alone. According to the lawsuit, there were 2,036 opioid-related overdoses in Michigan last year.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel blasted the drug distributors in a statement Tuesday.
“These companies knowingly and deliberately used their licenses to distribute drugs in our state without controls,” she said.
Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday that “the opioid crisis is hurting families from downtown Detroit all the way to the Upper Peninsula” and applauded Nessel’s litigation, saying it is one of many steps necessary to fulfill Whitmer’s goal of reducing opioid deaths in Michigan by 50% over the next five years.
The key to the damages sought in the suit is the claim that the drug companies knowingly participated in the illegal distribution of drugs and failed to control the public nuisance created by the saturation of prescription opioids available in the black market, acquired via their distribution channels.
Among the long list of damages sought in the landmark suit are costs for increased law enforcement, health care, early childhood intervention and drug treatment programs, which the state was forced to undertake in light of the magnitude of the opioid crisis.
Other damages sought by Michigan include costs for rehabilitating opioid addicts and opioid-dependent infants and children, special needs education for those opioid-dependent children, and the costs of prosecuting and jailing those convicted of drug crimes.
Nessel hopes the case will introduce a new tactic in taking drug companies to court and holding them responsible for the opioid crisis.
“The opioid epidemic continues to be fed by these companies precisely because the fines and suspensions imposed by the DEA did nothing to change their business practices,” she said, referring to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The attorney general noted that the millions of dollars in fines the companies typically pay when they do get penalized are a drop in the bucket compared to the billions they make in annual revenue.
“Today will not simply be known as the day Michigan decided to file a lawsuit; instead, today will known as the day that Michigan started to fight back,” Nessel said.
Representatives for Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, AmerisourceBergen and Walgreens could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Companies that produce, market and sell opioids have been met with a mountain of lawsuits this year, all of which combined are seeking billions in damages caused by the epidemic of addictions and overdoses related to the drugs.
In one case, a judge awarded Oklahoma $572 million in damages in August after finding the state successfully proved Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance by aggressively pushing opioids to doctors. The award was later lowered by $107 million based on a calculation error.