Walgreens allegedly failed to properly investigate “suspicious” prescription orders for almost 15 years that contributed to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer wrote that pharmacists at Walgreens filled hundreds of thousands of opioid prescription orders without having enough time, staffing, or resources to investigate red flags laws from 2006 to 2020, per Reuters.
Breyer noted that the company shipped nearly one out every five oxycodone and hydrocodone pills distributed nationwide at the peak of the opioid crisis, per The Washington Post.
“Walgreens has regulatory obligations to take reasonable steps to prevent the drugs from being diverted and harming the public,” Breyer wrote. “The evidence at trial established that Walgreens breached these obligations.”
Peter Mougey, an attorney representing the city and other communities nationwide against big pharma companies, told The Washington Post that the verdict would help other cases.
“Walgreens has hidden, covered up, and run from the truth throughout the entirety of this five-year litigation,” he said. “Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was nonexistent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming pace to increase profits.
“San Francisco is now one step closer to starting the healing process,” Mougey added.
San Francisco officials sued Walgreens and several other drug manufacturers and distributors like Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in 2018 for creating a “public nuisance” by failing to prevent the illegal use of prescription opioids flooding the city.
Other companies involved in the lawsuit include Allergan, Endo International, and the three biggest drug distributors nationwide — McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp., and Cardinal Health.
Walgreens remained the only company involved in the lawsuit that did not settle with the city before the court ruling.
Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said the company was “disappointed” with the decision and would appeal, standing by its claim that the company never manufactured or marketed opioids.
“Nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” Fraser wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
Walgreens will face another trial at a later date to determine how much the company must pay the city for the damage it allegedly caused the city.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the opioid epidemic caused more than half a million overdose deaths over the last 20 years.
Reuters reports that more than 3,300 lawsuits concerning opioids were filed against drug manufacturers, distributors, pharmacies, and other companies nationwide.
The court ruled San Francisco led the crisis with opioid-related emergency room visits that tripled from 886 in 2015 to 2,998 in 2020.
Other factors of San Francisco’s drug crisis can also trace back to the city’s open-air drug market, which the newly appointed District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has vowed to shut down.
Jenkins helped lead the recall of her predecessor and former boss, Chesa Boudin.
“I told the public that on day one, I will begin enforcing drug crime law,” Jenkins said according to KRON 4. “I mean what I say, and I am focused on delivering on my promise to hold serious and repeat offenders accountable for wreaking havoc in our communities like the Tenderloin.”
“We cannot allow our residents to die on the street of overdose — without holding those who sell fentanyl accountable,” she added. “We had 45 overdose deaths in May — 33 of which were from fentanyl.”
Yet while Jenkins has pledged to clear out drug use on the streets, California lawmakers recently introduced a new bill that would open so-called safe injection sites, where drug users can get high in a “protected setting.”
San Francisco Democrat lawmaker Scott Weiner authored the bill and claims such sites have proven to help people avoid overdose deaths, which the city saw a new record of in the last two years.
KTVU reports 711 people overdosed in 2020, while another 640 died in 2021.
However, Weiner asserts California and the rest of the nation have seen a dramatic increase in overdose deaths because of the lack of safe spaces.
“This legislation isn’t about whether we want people to use drugs,” Weiner told KTVU. “Rather, it’s an acknowledgment that people are using drugs, and our choice is whether we want to make every effort to help them survive and get healthy.”