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Oxycodone pills

The nation’s largest drug companies — backed by the U.S. Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration — are fighting to shield the release of information that would show how many prescription opioids they shipped to pharmacies across the country over the past decade.

The drug manufacturers and distributors argue that the disclosure of the painkiller numbers would put them at a competitive disadvantage and strain their relations with the DEA. The Justice Department and DEA say the release of the shipping data would exacerbate the opioid crisis and allow criminals to “strategically plan robberies” of prescription pain pills from pharmacies.

The federal agencies and drug companies joined forces this week, urging a judge to block the public release of the opioid shipping numbers that have been under wraps pursuant to a court order since March.

Over the DEA’s objections, the opioid data was recently released to law firms representing more than 500 cities and counties suing the drug companies. The lawsuits allege that the oversupply of painkillers — triggered by doctors writing too many prescriptions — fueled the opioid crisis and a record-number of drug overdose deaths.

Earlier this month, HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Herald-Dispatch and other newspapers, filed a public records request for the opioid data with the Cabell County Commission. Two days later, The Washingon Post put in similar requests with two counties in Ohio.

A standing court order required the counties to report the public records requests to U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is hearing the opioid lawsuits in federal court in Cleveland.

In briefs filed this week, the Department of Justice and the DEA assert that the prescription opioid data belongs to the federal government — and local public bodies, such as the Cabell commission, have no right to release it. The commission’s president has supported the release of the shipping data.

“The data remains the property of the United States and was never intended for public dissemination,” DOJ lawyers wrote in the brief.

The DEA argues that making the pill numbers public would undermine ongoing investigations and “facilitate criminal activity.”

“Criminals would know the specific data a specific pharmacy receives large quantities of opioids and can plan their criminal activities accordingly,” the DOJ lawyers wrote.

Justice and the DEA also speculated that the news media could misuse the pill information and spotlight an “individual or company that has done nothing wrong.”

What’s more, reporters might scour the prescription opioid data and “tip off potential targets before [the] DEA had the opportunity to investigate,” the federal agency lawyers allege.

In its fling, Justice redacted, or blacked out, other arguments for keeping the opioid numbers confidential.

In a separate brief, drug distributors and manufacturers, along with chain pharmacies, describe the prescription opioid numbers as “confidential business information” that’s crucial to law enforcement.

The DEA data include detailed information about opioid shipments to nearly 62,000 retail pharmacies in the United States from 2006 to 2015.

“Public disclosure of the data would frustrate effective law enforcement efforts by straining relations between the DEA and private companies,” the drug company lawyers wrote.

HD Media and The Post have until July 9 to submit briefs.

In 2016, many of the same drug firms fought to keep secret court records that disclosed prescription painkiller shipments to West Virginia pharmacies. Boone County Circuit Judge Will Thompson ordered the court filings unsealed.

Later that year, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey released much of the same DEA data now at issue, in response to a Gazette-Mail public records request. Morrisey has since released the shipping data to numerous trial lawyers, who have cited the information in lawsuits against the drug firms.

The Cabell County Commission recently filed an updated complaint against the drug companies, citing preliminary data that shows shipments of painkillers, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and prescription fentanyl, to Cabell and the rest of West Virginia. However, the specific pill numbers are redacted in the revised complaint.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.