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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Attorney General Bob Ferguson: Pharmaceutical industry must be held accountable for role in opioid crisis

By Attorney General Bob Ferguson

By Attorney General Bob Ferguson

I’m not sure what surprised me more about George Nethercutt’s piece, “The right way to battle opioid abuse in Washington state” (June 10) – his defense of opioid companies that made billions off the suffering of Washingtonians, or his confusion about which government agencies prosecute drug cartels.

Mr. Nethercutt, a former congressman and lobbyist, wants me to back off the pharmaceutical industry and our lawsuits to hold them accountable. That is not going to happen. Nethercutt’s views might be surprising – until you realize he received more than $100,000 in campaign donations from pharmaceutical companies over his political career. That includes $10,000 from OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma right in the middle of the first wave of the opioid epidemic. It’s clear he hasn’t forgotten about those donations.

I don’t have space to fully enumerate the shocking conduct of these corporations in pursuit of profit, but they have plenty to answer for in court, and the public deserves a full airing of the truth. For example, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma trained its sales representatives to reassure prescribers that there is “no ceiling” on the amount of OxyContin a patient should be prescribed. Johnson & Johnson profited from deceptively marketing its own branded opioid drugs, and by developing and supplying the active opioid ingredients used by other opioid manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma. And the Drug Enforcement Administration repeatedly caught three opioid distributors that are among the most profitable corporations in the world – McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen – for failing to stop and report suspicious opioid shipments. Instead of correcting their conduct, they adjusted their practices to let more drugs flow into impacted communities across the country.

These distributors’ actions impacted all of Washington – and hit Mr. Nethercutt’s former constituents especially hard. In 2008, opioid distributors shipped more prescriptions than there were people into nearly half of the counties Mr. Nethercutt represented in Congress, including Spokane, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Columbia and Asotin. As a congressman, Nethercutt had an opportunity to bring these opioid companies in line. Unfortunately, he chose to collect their political donations and look the other way.

Remarkably, Mr. Nethercutt now criticizes my lawsuits against these corporations. He cites a nameless “attorney who was involved in similar litigation in Oklahoma” taking issue with one of our legal claims. What he doesn’t tell readers is that an Oklahoma judge presiding over that trial had a very different opinion than Nethercutt’s anonymous attorney. The judge agreed with the Oklahoma attorney general, including the “public nuisance” claim Mr. Nethercutt dislikes, and awarded nearly half a billion dollars in damages.

Mr. Nethercutt’s central premise is that I should not be taking these corporations to trial. Rather, my office should direct our resources toward criminal investigations and prosecution of drug cartels. His argument makes no sense for a very simple reason – it’s impossible. I do not have the authority to initiate such investigations and prosecutions. What I can do, however, is hold powerful corporate interests accountable to the Washingtonians they harmed. And that’s precisely what I’m doing.

To that end, we have a trial in September against the three largest opioid distributors, and another trial in January against Johnson & Johnson. These companies need to testify in court under oath and be held accountable for their actions.

I have had too many heartbreaking conversations with family members devastated by the opioid crisis. They approach me at community events and tell me about the loved ones they lost, and those they fear losing. The majority of their stories start with prescription opioids. Those responsible for this epidemic must face accountability and pay for the harm they caused. George Nethercutt’s time would be better spent listening to individuals impacted by the opioid epidemic rather than penning an uninformed and factually inaccurate op-ed that minimizes the illegal conduct of huge corporations that harm Washingtonians.

Bob Ferguson is the Washington state attorney general.

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