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Leech Lake sues opioid manufacturers, distributors

CASS LAKE—The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe filed a lawsuit Tuesday against a group of opioid manufacturers and distributors, alleging that the companies are responsible for high levels of addiction and overdose deaths on the reservation.

A complaint filed Tuesday, Dec. 19, names 23 defendants including manufacturers Purdue Pharma Inc., Cephalon Inc., and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., as well as distributors The McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp.

Leech Lake's lawsuit echoes accusations made in other lawsuits announced by multiple Minnesota county attorneys in November, but the band said its suit is not connected to those filed by the counties.

The band's public relations manager Michael Chosa said no one could comment on the lawsuit, but issued a release with a quote from Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson, Sr.

Faron Jackson, Sr.

"The crisis caused by the proliferation of opiates throughout our communities is the newest threat to our way of life," Jackson said in the release. "We hope this lawsuit will help to bring further attention to this major issue and ultimately make sure the major opioid manufacturers, who have put their corporate profit margins over the lives of our people, are held accountable for their actions."

The 134-page complaint levels 10 counts against the various companies.

All of the defendants are accused of negligence and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, common law fraud, unlawful trade practices, uniform deceptive trade practices, making false statements in advertisements, violating Minnesota's Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act and of violating the Lanham Act, which states that anyone who misrepresents the "nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin" of a product is liable for damage caused by the misrepresentation.

All of the opioid distributors names in the lawsuit are also accused of causing a public nuisance, and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. and the McKesson Corp. are accused of negligence per se.

Court documents outline the impact the nationwide opioid epidemic has had on the Leech Lake band, an attributed the consequences to the companies' "unlawful conduct."

According to data presented in the complaint, the country's Native American communities, and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in particular, have been disproportionately impacted by the epidemic. Minnesota ranks first in the nation for overdose deaths of Native people, the complaint said.

The Leech Lake reservation sits in four counties: Beltrami, Cass, Hubbard and Itasca. In 2000, no one in any of those counties died from opioid-related overdoses, but in 2015, seven people in the area died.

Nearby reservations are also seeking consequences of opioid addiction. This week, both White Earth and Red Lake officials issued statements warning about the dangers or heroin and a rise in overdoses. According to a release from White Earth, two people died within 48 hours there. In Red Lake, a person who overdosed was "dumped" at a hospital.

According to the CDC, addiction to prescription pain medication is one of the strongest risk factors for heroin addiction.

The suit acknowledged that opioid painkillers can be used for short-term acute pain or for end-of-life care, but alleges that manufacturers lied about the potential for opioid addiction in patients who used the drugs long term.

"The manufacturers aggressively pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction," the complaint reads. "These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids and turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit. Such actions were intentional and/or unlawful."

The conduct of the manufacturers and distributors have put a financial burden on Leech Lake, complaint said.The band is seeking economic damages, the amount of which would be determined at a trial.

Companies respond

Spokespersons with Purdue and Janssen both denied the lawsuit's allegations in email statements to the Pioneer on Thursday. A representative with Teva provided a statement that did not reference the Leech Lake lawsuit. When asked for a more specific comment spokesperson Denise Bradley declined to provide further information.

A request for comment sent by the Pioneer to a McKesson representative also prompted a response from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade association that represents distributors including McKesson, Cardinal and AmeriSource Bergen.

The Alliance provided a statement that was at least partly identical to one made to the Star Tribune after the county attorneys announced their lawsuits in November.

"We are deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution—but we aren't willing to be scapegoats," the statement, attributed to HDA spokesperson John Parker, said. "The idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated."

Robert Josephson, a media contact with Purdue, said in an email statement that the company "vigorously" denies the allegations and looks forward to presenting its defense. Johnson said Purdue products account for two percent of total opioid prescriptions.

Jessica Castles Smith with Janssen also said the company believes the allegations are "legally and factually unfounded."

"Janssen has acted in the best interests of patients and physicians with regard to its opioid pain medicines," her email statement said.

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or gpastoor@bemidjipioneer.com

(218) 333-9796
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