Cherokee Nation files suit against drug wholesalers, pharmacies for role in opioid epidemic

The Cherokee Nation filed a landmark lawsuit on Thursday, taking aim at the pharmaceutical industry for its role in allegedly flooding the tribe's communities with highly addictive opioid painkillers.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind to be filed in tribal court and implicates three drug wholesalers — AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp. — and three pharmacy retailers — CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart — in the rise of opioid-related overdose deaths in the 14 counties across northeastern Oklahoma that comprise the Cherokee Nation. Cabell County, W.V. recently filed a similar lawsuit against pharmacy retailers and drug wholesalers.

"Tribal nations have survived disease, removal from our homelands, termination and other adversities, and still we prospered. However, I fear the opioid epidemic is emerging as the next great challenge of our modern era," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker in an emailed release. "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."

Between 2003 and 2015, opioid overdose deaths more than doubled across the tribal community, according to CDC data cited in the lawsuit. According to information from the Drug Enforcement Administration cited in the suit, approximately 845 million milligrams of opioid painkillers were distributed across the Cherokee Nation in 2015 alone. Drug overdoses involving hydrocodone and oxycodone killed more people in Oklahoma from 2007 to 2012 than alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and all other illegal drugs combined, according to the lawsuit.

"[CVS] is committed to the highest standards of ethics and business practices, including complying with all federal and state laws governing the dispensing of controlled substance prescriptions, and is dedicated to reducing prescription drug abuse and diversion," a CVS spokesperson told The Washington Post. Walgreens declined to comment on the pending litigation, and the other companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment, according to the Post.

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