Seven New Mexico counties have filed federal lawsuits against Purdue Pharma — the maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin — and more than two dozen other manufacturers and distributors of opioid medications, claiming violations of New Mexico laws, negligence, conspiracy and fraud.
In their near-identical complaints, Cibola, Valencia, Catron, Sierra, Curry, Lincoln and Socorro counties allege the companies deceptively prescribed and marketed the powerfully addictive drugs, contributing to a public health crisis that is draining county resources, including through high rates of incarceration in county jails.
The lawsuits, filed late last month, are the latest in roughly 2,000 cases that have been brought nationwide by states, cities and counties against opioid makers, including suits filed by Santa Fe County and the state of New Mexico.
Socorro County Manager Delilah Walsh said the smaller New Mexico counties joined together to have a larger voice in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
“The only thing we are sure of is the impact of opioid abuse in our community,” she said.
The county’s lawsuit says “widespread misuse of powerful opioid pain medications” is directly related to aggressive efforts by manufacturers that misrepresented the addictive nature of the pills.
Distributors, including Walgreens and Walmart, both listed as defendants in the cases, are accused of breaching their legal duties “to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates.”
In Socorro County, the consequences of opioid abuse are felt most prominently in jails and schools, Walsh said.
A county survey found 95 percent of jail inmates had some kind of substance-use issue, she said, with many suffering from addiction or self-medicating to cope with mental illness. The majority of inmates face drug-related charges and parole violations, she added, many of which are opioid related.
While the jail usually houses more than 80 inmates a day, Walsh said, that number would be closer to 20 if the opioid crisis were resolved.
Walsh also cited a recent study that found a high rate of babies in the county are born with opioids or other drugs in their bodies.
Walsh said she hopes the lawsuit will help funnel resources into the county to provide drug-treatment options.
“It is extremely important to put the resources in place for substance abuse at home,” she said. “It is a huge cost to our community.”
Adren Nance, an attorney for Cibola County who is representing five of the seven counties in the lawsuit, said, “The counties have come to a breaking point.”
“This is something that every single county commissioner sees every day and knows it,” he said in an email. “It is affecting everyone and commissioners are really on the front lines.”
The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office sued opioid manufacturers and distributors in a state District Court in 2017, saying the action was the first step in holding companies accountable for the harm opioids have caused New Mexicans.
There has been some success, nationally, in efforts to sue drugmakers. In late March, Purdue agreed to pay Oklahoma $270 million to settle a case the state had brought. The company also paid $600 million in 2007 for federal criminal charges of misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the effects of OxyContin.
Just last week, West Virginia settled a suit against opioid distributor McKesson Corp. for $37 million, and a federal jury in Boston convicted the founder and other high-level executives of Insys Therapeutics of criminal racketeering charges for bribing doctors to prescribe fentanyl-based painkillers.
Now, attention is turning to Johnson & Johnson, which faces a televised trial later this month in a lawsuit filed by Oklahoma. Among other allegations, the Washington Post reported Saturday, the state accuses the company of targeting children in its opioid marketing.
For decades, New Mexico has had among the highest drug overdose rates in the country, with over 500 people dying annually for the past 10 years, the majority from heroin and prescription opioids, state data shows. Roughly half the state’s counties have an overdose death rate higher than the national average of 21.7 deaths per 100,000.
Indeed, the new the lawsuits lay out data illustrating an increase in hospital visits related to opioid use in recent years and a rise in New Mexico counties with more than 20 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people. A state map shows that in 2003, just one county in Northern New Mexico was colored red to represent a death rate over 20, but by 2014, the majority of state was colored red.
“New Mexico’s death rate from drug overdose grew dramatically in lockstep with Defendants’ increasing sale and distribution of opioid drugs,” the lawsuits say.
Still, there has been some progress in the state. In October, the New Mexico Department of Health said opioid prescriptions for the second quarter of 2018 had dropped nearly 12 percent from the same period the previous year. The rate of overdose deaths fell 4 percent between 2016 and 2017, the agency said.
The state now ranks 17th in the nation for drug overdose deaths, with a rate of 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 — an improvement over previous years, largely due to a growing national opioid epidemic. Rio Arriba County leads the state in such deaths, with a rate nearly four times the state and national averages.