The US has been hit very hard by the recent opioid crisis. Deaths from opioid-related overdose have quadrupled since 2003, with 33,000 deaths in the nation last year alone. But nowhere in the US has been affected as drastically as Indian Country. To paint a picture, Native American high school students abuse OxyContin at twice the national average. The Cherokee Nation, which, is represented by 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma, is taking a stand by filling a lawsuit against the US’s top pharmaceutical distributors, following in the footsteps of Ohio and Mississippi, among other states (read about it here). There have been 350 overdose-related deaths in these Oklahoma counties between 2003 and 2015. Cherokee officials knew it was time to take action.

The numbers regarding opioid prevalence in the Cherokee Nation speak for themselves:

  • 845,000,000 million milligrams worth of drugs were distributed to the 14 counties in 2015
  • This means that every opioid addict in the area had roughly 360 to 720 pills
  • 6 percent of American Indian 12th graders have tried heroin, twice the national average

Attorneys representing the Cherokee Nation hope that their lawsuit accomplishes two objectives. Number one, it will compensate those affected by the opioid crisis, as much as a lawsuit can. Financial penalties from these companies will go toward law enforcement costs and reimbursing the child welfare service, which has had to cope with the influx of addicted babies. The money currently being spent by the state could be going towards other families without these issues.

Secondly, the Cherokee Nation’s attorneys hope that the lawsuit will change the behavior of the pharmaceutical distributors named as defendants. These include:

  • Walmart
  • CVS Pharmacies
  • Walgreens

As well as the nation’s three largest distributors:

  • AmerisourceBergen
  • McKesson
  • Cardinal Health

Plaintiffs allege that the named defendants did not take the necessary steps to stop their drugs from getting into the hands of the black market. For example, they turned a blind eye to doctor shopping and filling multiple opioid prescriptions at once, both of which violate the Controlled Substances Act. Distributors should, under the act, file any suspicious activities, such as these, with the federal government. The Cherokee Nation’s attorneys state that the crisis boils down to the simple problem of market oversaturation. There are more drugs, ones that should be rare and difficult to get in the first place, in the market than there should be. They have ignored known issues in their supply chain to get to this point.

Defendants, however, contest that they have done nothing wrong. As Courtney Tobin, a spokesperson for Cardinal Health, puts it:

Cardinal Health is confident that the facts and the law are on our side, and we intend to vigorously defend ourselves,” Tobin wrote. “We believe these lawsuits do 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.

All of the defendants who could be reached for comment by The Rolling Stone felt similarly about the case.

The suit was filed in tribal court on April 20th, 2017. While the defense will likely ask the judge to move jurisdiction to a federal court, a tribal court will allow plaintiffs to get access to corporate records sooner.

Like the rest of the country, Wyoming’s Indian population has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. State officials are sensitive to the issue and have been working to address it. For example, in Fremont County, drop boxes for unneeded drugs can now be found at clinics and city halls. These have been added to combat the spike in opioid overdoses over the last several years and decades.

Fremont County has a large Native American population at 20% and is home to the Wind River Reservation. Learn move about the drop boxes and other initiatives [HERE].

Regardless of the trials outcome, we at the Ochs Law Firm hope for relief and will join the fight for all of those affected by the epidemic in the Cherokee Nation and Wyoming.