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Md. files charges against Purdue Pharma owners for opioid epidemic

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh filed an administrative action against the owners and former directors of Purdue Pharma Thursday, alleging they deceived the public and profited from a campaign to increase the prescription and use of their opioids, including OxyContin.

The statement of charges, filed by the Consumer Protection Division, alleges that members of the Sackler family, who founded the company, engaged in unfair and deceptive practices in marketing opioid products by misleading doctors and the public about the risks of the drugs.

“They were deep into a campaign — we allege this in our statement of charges — deep into a public relations campaign that encouraged the additional use, additional prescription of opioids, mostly OxyContin,” Frosh said.

Frosh and colleagues from Iowa, Kansas, West Virginia and Wisconsin announced actions against Purdue, the Sacklers, or both, on Thursday.

Because Maryland filed an administrative action, it’s case will proceed much faster than traditional lawsuits, according to Frosh. Once the defendants are served and have a chance to respond, the Office of Administrative Hearings will set a trial date, usually within three months.

“It’s much quicker than filing a lawsuit in court,” he said. “I would not be surprised if we didn’t have a trial within three months but we’ll have a trial that will be much quicker than if we were in circuit court.”

Though the administrative process does not allow the state to put its case in front of a jury, Frosh said his office determined the “speed of resolution was so attractive” that it was the right way to proceed.

“I think the administrative process will compress the timeline significantly and that’s at least what we are planning on,” he said.

A group of law firms came on board in January as outside counsel to assist with possible litigation. Under the agreement, the three law firms — Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP in San Diego, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP in San Francisco and Silverman Thompson Slutkin White LLC in Baltimore — will receive from 2% to 8% of any monetary recovery depending on when and how the litigation ends.

Frosh said outside counsel has added “massive resources” to his office’s work.

“We thought that if we got outside help, it would enable us to bring the cases faster and do more of them at the same time,” he said.

The state already brought an administrative action against opioid manufacturer Insys Therapeutics last month and hearings are scheduled for August, according to Frosh.

‘Trail of addiction and death’

Maryland’s 100-page statement of charges calls Richard Sackler, former Purdue president and board member, and others in his family the “chief architects and beneficiaries of Purdue’s false marketing and deception.” They are accused of controlling and directing the alleged misconduct and favoring sales over safety.

Sackler was president of Purdue from 1999 to 2003 and has served as a member of the board of directors since the 1990s, according to the charges. During and after his time as an executive, Sackler allegedly “actively participated in every aspect of the company’s opioid business, from invention to marketing to sale.”

In the early 2000s, Sackler told employees that deaths from overdoses were the fault of “the drug addicts” and that people abusing OxyContin were far outnumbered by people who needed the drug to manage pain, according to the charges.

Other members of the family are similarly alleged to have been involved in business and marketing decisions, including an analysis about how how to profit from addiction by developing treatments.

“The impact of Purdue’s false messaging has been profound,” the charges say. “Respondents have profited handsomely as more and more people became addicted to opioids and died of overdoses.”

Frosh accused the family of leaving “a trail of addiction and death” in Maryland and elsewhere by pushing “two foundational falsehoods”: the low risk of addiction to prescription opioids and the under-treatment of pain.

“The damage that’s been caused in our state is extremely large,” he said.

The action names Richard Sackler, Jonathan Sackler, Mortimer Sackler, Kathe Sackler, Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, Theresa Sackler and David Sackler.

Multistate effort

Maryland has been investigating companies that manufacture and distribute opioids since 2016 and is part of a multistate effort to share information.

Maryland ranked fifth in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017 with 32.2 fatalities per 100,000 people, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. West Virginia ranked first with 49.6 deaths per 100,000.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey called the opioid epidemic “one of the challenges of our times.”

“We believe that we need to reach a solution to this problem,” he said.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said the epidemic is an ongoing problem, but one that was not inevitable.

“We are committed to ensuring that there’s accountability for this epidemic because that’s the right thing to do and because we need to make sure that the public understands what led to this, especially so we can address it effectively and so we can ensure that we don’t have an epidemic like this happen again,” he said.

Oklahoma became the first state to settle a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, in March, with the company agreeing to pay $270 million to fund addiction research and treatment in the state.

More than a dozen Maryland counties and several cities and towns have already filed lawsuits in state and federal court alleging the companies misrepresented the risk of addiction and aggressively marketed their drugs, encouraging doctors to prescribe them in large doses over long periods. Over 1,800 jurisdictions — cities, counties and states — are participating in federal multidistrict litigation.

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