I’m equal parts heartbroken and angry over U.S. District Judge David Faber letting three pharmaceutical distributors off the hook for the damage the addiction crisis has caused in Huntington and Cabell County.
It bothers me that the ruling was handed down nearly a year after the bench trial concluded. One could argue in a case of this magnitude, haste was not the priority. Try telling that to a family that lost a loved one to an overdose because there wasn’t a bed to be found in rehab.
It bothers me that the crux of the verdict more or less finds distributors McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Drug Co. and Cardinal Health were simply middlemen and it wasn’t their job to question why hundreds of millions of pain pills were being shipped to pharmacies in small West Virginia towns.
I understand the argument, but it’s not that simple. In case after case, from misleading marketing on the potency and proper use of synthetic opioids as pain relievers, to internal corporate communications mocking West Virginians as “pill-billies,” it’s been shown those in Big Pharma’s corner offices knew what they were doing. Granted, not all of that was relevant to these three specific companies in this case, but plenty of it was.
Long before being hauled into courtrooms across the nation, Big Pharma relied on the argument that it was just meeting demand. The mountain of evidence to the contrary has rendered that defense useless in just about every courtroom across the country other than Faber’s.
It bothers me that the ruling basically kills a massive effort Huntington and Cabell County hoped to implement providing comprehensive help, recovery and prevention in one of the regions hit hardest by this scourge.
You can argue that nobody should’ve pinned their hopes on a $2.6 billion verdict against drug distributors. I suppose that’s fair. Even so, the outcome has tossed a gallon of cold water on a match-flame of hope, and that’s what gets me the most.
I would often talk with officials in Huntington about the concept of hope, and the lack thereof, that was so obviously contributing to the crisis. Everything that city has done to address the issue has, for the most part, put best practices first. But there also was a sense of providing hope beyond what was happening in the moment.
I was there when the pill mills were shut down and Huntington suddenly found itself dealing with an unreal spike in heroin overdoses, accompanied by skyrocketing hepatitis C cases from the use of dirty needles. I was on the scene when emergency responders would find a crying toddler strapped in a car seat, her parents passed out or dead in the driver and passenger seats after the car rolled into a ditch.
I’ll never forget Jan Rader (who has held so many titles, exceeding in all of them, that I don’t know what to call her anymore other than one of the most effective champions against this crisis in the nation) explaining to me why someone who could no longer find pills would gamble with a bump of heroin, which was more often becoming laced with fentanyl. It was the first time I heard the word “dopesick.”
“It’s like the flu times 10,” Rader said, explaining the withdrawal and the fear of that withdrawal was so awful, that there were now functioning heroin addicts across every socioeconomic demographic in the city of Huntington.
That was nearly 10 years ago, and still West Virginia is reckoning with a plague that can, in some cases, be traced back to a misinformed physician prescribing a pill more powerful than morphine for an ankle sprain. That evolved into people ransacking medicine cabinets of friends or strangers, sometimes in home-invasion fashion, which, in turn evolved into not-so-scrupulous doctors selling prescriptions for cash, often located near a locally owned pharmacy that was having more pills than an army would need delivered by the truckload. We know what happened after that.
As for this case, you can argue that the plaintiffs didn’t do enough to prove their case or you can say the defense raised enough doubt. You can propose that Faber got it right. You can certainly argue that he got it wrong. I guess, now, it doesn’t really matter.
But a middleman cannot be a conscientious objector when delivering death, doubly so when they know that’s what they’re doing.