County joins lawsuit against drug manufacturers, distributors

Money sought to offset costs resulting from opioid addiction

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
San Juan County
  • San Juan County filed a lawsuit on May 31 in U.S. District Court.
  • County Attorney Doug Echols said the county has not yet calculated how much money it has spent because of opioid addiction.
  • New Mexico has one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the United States.

FARMINGTON — Hundreds of counties and municipalities across the country are hoping to hold opioid drug manufacturers and distributors accountable for an alleged marketing campaign they say has spurred an epidemic of opioid addiction.

San Juan County joined that effort when it filed a lawsuit on May 31 in U.S. District Court.

The counties and municipalities are asking for money to offset costs resulting from the addiction — including costs of incarceration and treatment.

County Attorney Doug Echols said the county has not yet calculated how much money it has spent because of opioid addiction.

Echols said he anticipates the county will be able to prove a large number of people have been incarcerated for forging prescriptions for opioids. He said the county also will seek money to cover the costs of stocking drugs to reverse opioid overdoses. These reversal drugs are carried by emergency responders.

Complaint highlights opioid addiction in New Mexico, San Juan County

New Mexico has one of the highest rates of drug overdose deaths in the United States, according to the complaint. In 2016, the opioid overdose death rate in New Mexico and San Juan County was 17.5 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the complaint. In contrast, the national rate was 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people

Between 2010 and 2014, 111 people died of opioid overdoses in San Juan County, according to the complaint.

Other impacts of increased opioid addiction include increased emergency room visits, emergency responses, use of opioid reversal drugs and an increase in hepatitis C due to intravenous injection of opioids.

During that same time period, more than 200 people visited the San Juan Regional Medical Center’s emergency room after overdosing on prescription opioids, the press release states.

“The opioid crisis has been an ongoing crisis all over the country and all over the world,” County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said.

County alleges companies misrepresented dangers

The lawsuit alleges companies used overly aggressive and fraudulent marketing to sell opioid painkillers.

The 277-page complaint states the misrepresentations fall into nine categories:

  • Risk of addiction is low.
  • Addiction can be easily identified and managed.
  • Signs of addictive behavior are “pseudoaddiction” and require more opioids.
  • Opioid withdrawal can be avoided by tapering off use.
  • Opioid drugs can be increased without greater risk.
  • Long-term opioid use improves functioning.
  • Other forms of pain relief have greater risks.
  • OxyContin provides 12 hours of pain relief.
  • New formulations deter abuse.

The lawsuit also alleges distributors have the obligation and the tools to track surges in prescription opioid demand, according to a press release from two law firms representing the county. The press release states that the defendants did not warn public officials about suspicious orders.

Companies issue open letters about opioid abuse

Endo Pharmaceuticals, which is named in the lawsuit, issued an open letter in mid-May.

According to the letter, Endo withdrew an opioid painkiller known as Opana from the market and has discontinued research and development of new opioid products.

“While we are proud of Endo’s actions, neither we nor any other single actor can solve the opioid abuse crisis,” the letter states. “Instead, any solution must be multifaceted and consider not only the product supply chain, but also individual risk factors and other factors affecting utilization decisions, together with scientific, legislative and regulatory measures, training, treatment and education. Criminal trafficking of opioids (including heroin and fentanyl), illegal Internet sales and importation must also be addressed. Finally, the legitimate access needs of the millions of patients suffering from acute or chronic pain who rely on opioid medications must be considered ... ”

Purdue Pharmaceuticals has also issued an open letter. In the letter, the company stressed the efforts it has taken to reduce opioid abuse, such as making pills harder to crush. Purdue states reducing the number of excess pills will help rein in the problem with opioid abuse.

"...We believe doctors should check their state Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) databases before writing an opioid prescription, to guard against doctor-shopping by those trying to game the system. Information sharing between state databases must improve," the open letter states.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at