Declaring an “opioid epidemic of unprecedented proportions” in Indian country, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma on Thursday, April 20 filed suit against CVS, Walmart and others alleging that the defendants knowingly created the conditions that amount to little more than legalized drug trafficking to citizens within its jurisdiction.
By ignoring red flags and refusing to monitor the supply chain, contributing to what is known as “drug diversion,” the suit alleges that the effects of opioid addiction has had a devastating human toll on the tribe’s citizens and crushing impact on its resources.
“For years, we have experienced first-hand the effects of opioid addiction in our nation,” said Cherokee Nation attorney general Todd Hembree. “We’ve had deaths, children have been born addicted, it has impacted our Indian Child welfare because of broken homes, it’s an expense to our courts, to our health services, to our schools, our law enforcement. We get to see all of it up close―and it’s truly devastating and heartbreaking the damage it has caused to our citizens.”
Citing the fulfillment of suspicious orders and approving high-volume prescriptions that clearly require monitoring and further investigation before dispensing pills, the Cherokee Nation outlines in stark language the effects and outcomes of drugs that easily make their way into the hands of addicts and drug dealers from which all of the defendants have profited in the billions. On the other side of the equation, says Hembree, lies the enormous costs and human tragedy that continue to pile up.
“They marketed these drugs and made them easily available to our people and they have made huge profits,” says Hembree. “They know this and they pay tens of millions in fines to the FDA―which are nothing more than parking tickets for them―and they keep going. We can’t put them in jail, but we can hit them where it hurts the most, which is their wallet.”
The first of its kind, the suit was filed in the District Court of the Cherokee Nation, and also includes Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corporation and AmerisourceBergen. The tribe is seeking injunctive relief, compensatory damages, statutory damages, punitive damages and “any other relief allowed by the law.”
According to Hembree, efforts to bring suit in tribal court began several years ago after the state of Oklahoma either could not―or would not―address the issue in its court system. In an unprecedented effort across its government, the Cherokee Nation began gathering research and working with its health system, law enforcement, Indian child welfare and its courts to identify the problem, as well as the economic consequences of opioid addiction and trafficking.
The Cherokee Nation also retained powerhouse law firms, including Washington, D.C.-based Sonosky Chambers and Boyce Schiller in Miami, Florida, to send a clear message that it intends to dig in for the duration, says Hembree.
“We’re breaking new ground here and we know that jurisdiction is going to be an issue, however, we’re in this for the long haul,” says Hembree. “The Cherokee Nation has a legal system on par with any other court in the country and we have a world class team dedicated to addressing the scourge of opioids on our people. We look forward to showing the world just how sophisticated our court system is.”
At press time, only CVS had publicly responded to the litigation.
"CVS Health 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."