A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Walgreens can be held liable for contributing to San Francisco’s opioid crisis by over-dispensing highly addictive drugs for years without proper oversight and failing to identify and report suspicious orders as required by law.
San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu said the pharmacy chain was “continually violating what they were required to do under the federal Controlled Substances Act” by failing to track opioid prescriptions, preventing pharmacists looked at the prescriptions and “didn’t see the many red flags from the doctors.” and others who were dramatically overprescribing.”
“Pharmacists were pressured to fill, fill, fill,” he said, “and as a result, Walgreens filled our streets with opioids.”
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that for 15 years, Walgreens dispensed hundreds of thousands of pills, ultimately contributing to city hospitals being overwhelmed with opioid patients, libraries forced to close as toilets were clogged with syringes and syringes littered playgrounds in San Francisco.
A spokesman for Walgreens, based in Deerfield, Illinois, said the chain is disappointed with the result, which it said is not supported by the facts or the law.
“As we have said throughout this process, we never manufacture or market opioids, or distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and Internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” spokesman Fraser Engerman said in a statement. “Plaintiff’s attempt to solve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of the disorderly persons law is misguided and untenable. We look forward to having the opportunity to address these issues on appeal.”
In 2018, San Francisco sued Walgreens and drug manufacturers and distributors for worsening the city’s opioid epidemic, claiming they created a “public nuisance” by flooding the city with prescription opioids. All other defendants previously settled with the city for a total of $114 million, including $54 million that opioid makers Allergan and Teva agreed to pay on the eve of closing arguments in the trial, leaving Walgreens as the only defendant.
Wednesday’s ruling did not include a ruling on money damages, which will be determined in a future trial.
The opioid epidemic has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US over the past two decades, counting those caused by prescription painkillers like OxyContin and generic oxycodone, as well as illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl produced illegally.
The surge in deaths has led to more than 3,000 lawsuits filed by state and local governments, Native American tribes, labor unions, hospitals and other entities in state and federal courts over the number of opioid victims. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency last year in the Tenderloin neighborhood, saying something had to be done about the high concentration of drug dealers and people who use drugs in public.
The city attorney’s office says that San Francisco saw a nearly 500% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths between 2015 and 2020 and that, on a typical day, about a quarter of visits to the Department of Emergencies at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital are related to opioids.
In 2020, 712 people died from drug overdoses, compared to 257 people who died from COVID-19, according to the city’s health department.
A high percentage of the approximately 7,800 homeless people in San Francisco, many of whom pitch tents in the Tenderloin, are struggling with chronic addiction or serious mental illness, often both. Some people rant on the streets, naked and in need of medical help.
Pharmacy chains have been sued less often than opioid manufacturers or wholesalers who distribute pharmaceuticals more widely. In a groundbreaking case, a federal jury in Ohio last year found that CVS, Walgreens and Walmart recklessly distributed massive amounts of painkillers in two Ohio counties.
In May, Walgreens reached a $683 million settlement with the state of Florida in a lawsuit that accused the company of improperly dispensing millions of painkillers that contributed to the opioid crisis. Walgreens has not admitted wrongdoing in its agreement with Florida and will make payments to the state for 18 years.
The company also faces litigation in Alabama, Michigan and New Mexico, among other states.
Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. operates a network of about 9,000 pharmacies in the United States. Walgreens and other prescription drug distributors have faced a series of lawsuits over the opioid crisis.
Associated Press writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis contributed.