Citing the drain on public resources, the Clark County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to join the growing number of local jurisdictions taking legal action against pharmaceutical companies for deceptively pushing addictive opioid medications.
The county will retain the Seattle-based law firm of Keller Rohrback to file a lawsuit on its behalf. Emily Sheldrick, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney, said in an email that she’s not sure which specific companies will be targeted in the lawsuit. She said she hopes the lawsuit will be ready next month.
The firm represents King, Skagit, Pierce and Clallam counties and the cities of Tacoma, Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro-Woolley in similar lawsuits, according to a county new release. It also stated that the firm represents the Arizona Municipal Risk Recovery Pool, a coalition of 76 cities and towns. Similar lawsuits filed by Keller Rohrback have been aimed at Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Janssen Pharmaceuticals.
Speaking at the meeting, Clark County Undersheriff Mike Cooke described pharmaceutical companies as “corporate drug dealers” that have committed the same crimes as “some guy lurking in a parking lot.” He said that the opioid epidemic has been devastating to the public and been a burden to the sheriff’s office and social services.
“A significant contributor to this epidemic has been the intentional and deceptive practice of pharmaceutical companies who produce and market opiate-based medications,” he said.
Cooke described how patients of a pain clinic were left in panic when it closed down in the late 2000s. He said that some patients resorted to robbing pharmacies or faking being hit by cars in hopes of getting opioid-based painkillers. He said that some people addicted to opioids made the jump to heroin when pills became too costly.
“Now we have a new generation of people addicted to heroin, in large part, due to the practice of the major pharmaceutical companies,” he said.
Cooke said the problem has already changed operations at the sheriff’s office. He said that some deputies are now equipped with naloxone, a medication intended to reverse opioid overdoses. He also noted that the sheriff’s office has introduced medication-assisted treatment to individuals in the jail struggling with opioid addiction.
According to a county news release, at least 91 people died of opioid-related causes since 2014 in Clark County. An additional 51 people died of heroin use during that period. Opioid users make up over half of defendants in the county’s drug court, according to the news release.
The news release states that since Clark County Public Health started an opioid overdose prevention program in 2014, it has distributed more than 3,600 kits containing naloxone. More than 1,200 people, including sheriff’s deputies, have been trained to use the kits and carry them, and more than 660 overdoses have been reversed, the news release states.
Every member of the county council is a Republican (with the exception of Chair Marc Boldt, who is unaffiliated). Both Councilors Jeanne Stewart and Eileen Quiring said they would be reluctant to initiate a lawsuit against a company, but this was different.
“Normally, I’d be uncomfortable with this, except our citizens are paying the costs of taking care of this problem now,” said Stewart.
Councilor John Blom said that the lawsuit was just one piece of the puzzle and the county needs to continue to adopt forward-thinking approaches.
At the end of the meeting, Boldt said that he didn’t think that this issue would be addressed by the Legislature or Congress.
“The only place this will get handled is the local government,” he said.
The law firm will be paid only if Clark County recovers damages in a settlement or at trial, according to a news release.