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Three South Dakota Indian tribes sue over opioid addictions

Vernon Red Owl, a member of the Siseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe in South Dakota, raises his arm as a motorist honks a horn in support as more than 200 protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline construction gathered in Bismarck before marching across the Liberty Memorial Bridge to Mandan

Three American Indian tribes in South Dakota have sued the country's top opioid manufacturers and distributors, accusing them of concealing and minimizing the addiction risk in tribal communities that have been devastated by such drugs.

While 200,000 Americans died from prescription opioid overdoses from 2000 to 2016, the national epidemic has hit Indian reservations particularly hard. Native Americans suffer the highest per capita rate of opioid overdoses, and one in 10 American Indian youths age 12 or older used prescription opioids for nonmedical purposes in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's double the rate for white youths.

"The effect of opioids on South Dakota Tribes has been horrific," said Brendan Johnson, the former U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, who filed the lawsuit along with Tim Purdon, the former U.S. attorney for North Dakota. "This epidemic has overwhelmed our public health and law enforcement services, drained resources for addiction therapy and sent the cost of caring for children of opioid-addicted parents skyrocketing."

Three tribes - Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate - sued 24 manufacturers and distributors, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan PLC, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Corp. But the attorneys allege the opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc on all of South Dakota's nine tribes.

The complaint alleges the opioid industry failed to comply with federal prescription-drug laws intended to prevent the diversion of prescription opioids and prevent their abuse. The lawsuit accuses the companies of violating federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws, deceptive trade practices, and fraudulent and negligent conduct.

Most of the companies did not immediately respond to the lawsuit.

Kaelan Hollon, spokesperson for Teva Pharmaceuticals, released a statement saying the company is working to educate communities and health-care providers and comply with federal and state regulations. A Pharma spokesman said "we vigorously deny these allegations." The company is "deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and . . . dedicated to being part of the solution," its statement says.

Neither statement addressed the South Dakota case specifically.

Hundreds of cities, states and counties have filed lawsuits against opioid drug manufacturers and distributors, among them seven counties in West Virginia, which has the highest prescription drug overdose rate in the nation. In April, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma became the first tribe to do so.

Walmart, CVS and the other companies that were sued went to a federal judge in Oklahoma in June and argued that Cherokee tribal courts do not have jurisdiction over them. The judge has not ruled on whether the case will remain in tribal court or be transferred to U.S. District Court.

Over the past three weeks, three other tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Carolina have filed similar lawsuits, all in federal court. The South Dakota complaint is the first multi-tribe lawsuit and the first representing Lakota Sioux in the Great Plains.

"The opioid crisis impacts almost every community, but the real danger spots are in economically challenged rural parts of the country," said Purdon, now with Robins Kaplan law firm. "Indian reservations in the Great Plains and the Southwest and other parts of the country fit that description. And they struggle with addiction problems."

Pregnant Native American women, for example, are up to 8.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with opioid dependency or abuse, compared with the next highest demographic, and in some communities more than one in 10 pregnant Native American women has a diagnosis of opioid dependency or abuse, according to a study of the opioid crisis in Indian Country. As a result, many tribal infants suffer from opioid withdrawal and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, the South Dakota lawsuit says.

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