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Judge's order keeps opioid pill numbers under wraps

A federal judge on Thursday blocked the Cabell County Commission and local governments across the United States from releasing information that details the number of prescription opioids that drug firms shipped to West Virginia and other states.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department had teamed up with drug companies to keep the pill numbers under wraps. HD Media, which includes the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Herald-Dispatch, had asked a judge to allow the Cabell County Commission, which is suing the drug firms, to release the pill shipping data. The Washington Post put in a similar request with two counties in Ohio.

In his ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster noted that counties suing drug manufacturers and distributors had agreed to a “protective order” that prohibited the public release of the pain-pill data. He concluded there was “good cause” to keep the protective order, saying the DEA database of pill shipments contains information that’s sensitive to drug distributors and pharmacies. The same data also is “crucial to law enforcement efforts,” the judge wrote.

“It is a law enforcement tool of the United States that it shares only with local law enforcement agencies to stem illicit drug-trafficking,” Polster said in a 12-page order.

HD Media lawyers had argued that the data, which inventories prescription opioid shipments from 2006 to 2014, was “stale” information that wouldn’t jeopardize federal and local investigations or harm drug companies’ ability to compete.

“There are hundreds of ongoing enforcement proceedings and criminal prosecutions, and the fact that the data goes back 10 years does not mean that it is irrelevant to current investigations or future prosecutions,” Polster wrote.

The judge added that the DEA generates the data, not counties and cities subject to public records requests. The more than 600 local government entities suing the drug companies secured the pill shipment data as part of ongoing lawsuits that allege the firms helped fuel the opioid epidemic by shipping an excessive number of prescription painkillers to pharmacies. The cases have been consolidated and are being heard by Polster in federal court in Cleveland.

“The data does not transmogrify into a public record merely because it has been disclosed privately to the parties in this civil litigation,” Polster wrote.

The judge noted that lawyers representing cities and counties would have a chance to present the pill shipment data publicly as evidence, if the cases go to trial in March 2019. Until then, local government bodies like Cabell County are prohibited from disclosing the painkiller numbers to the media.

Cabell commissioners have said they want to make the pill data public.

The oversupply of painkillers, triggered by doctors writing an excessive number of prescriptions, has been widely blamed for starting and fueling the opioid epidemic, which claimed more than 900 lives in West Virginia last year.

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

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