Producers and distributors of opiates met Tuesday, June 29 for the first time before a jury to answer for their responsibility for the devastation caused by these pain-relieving drugs, at the origin of more than 500,000 overdoses in 20 years in the United States . “This dossier deals with a subject: corporate greed.” This is how the complaint at the origin of this extraordinary lawsuit begins in the State of New York. It was filed in 2017 by several counties in that state, which say they spent “Astronomical sums” to cope with “The opioid epidemic”, and which have since been joined by other communities.
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They originally targeted all players in the chain, but the Purdue Pharma laboratory, at the heart of the crisis, placed itself under bankruptcy protection in 2019. Other companies reached agreements in extremis with justice to avoid appearing. The Johnson and Johnson laboratory thus agreed this weekend to pay $ 230 million and to stop the production and sale of these substances. As of Tuesday morning, prosecutors dropped the lawsuits against Walgreens pharmacies, according to a court source, with an agreement on the verge of being reached.
“A circle of addiction”
The lawsuit ultimately pits 70 public entities against seven industry giants, including pharmaceutical groups Teva, Allergan or distributors Cardinal Health and Amerisource. The defendants will have to justify the marketing strategies adopted at the end of the 1990s and which, according to the plaintiffs, encouraged doctors to prescribe these pain-relieving drugs despite their highly addictive nature. “The producers misled doctors and patients by ensuring that the risk of addiction was rare”Jayne Conroy, who represents Suffolk County, said at the opening of the proceedings. “I want you to think of Pinocchio, his growing nose, when you hear their lies”, she added to the jurors. “Their priority was not whether the drugs were dangerous but the money they could earn”, added Hunter Shkolnik, for Nassau County, lamenting that pain medications have created “A circle of addiction”.
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Having become addicted, many users increased their use and eventually switched to illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, a very potent synthetic opioid. The defendants retort that these drugs had been approved by the regulatory authorities and that their activities were subject to controls. Such arguments have been made in other jurisdictions. A federal lawsuit against distributors is underway in West Virginia, and producers are currently on trial in California court. But this is the first time that a jury, made up of six incumbents and six alternates, has been set up to decide. And few cases bring together so many actors, all surrounded by a large number of lawyers.
For lack of a sufficiently large courtroom, the New York justice system is also organizing the trial in the auditorium of a university, in Central Islip on Long Island. Hearings are expected to last a minimum of six to eight weeks.