Santa Cruz County joined over 30 other California counties in a thread of lawsuits suing 12 opioid manufacturers on May 11, an extension of a national lawsuit heading to federal court in 2019.   


The lawsuit outlines multiple specific cases of negligence, fraud, racketeering, false advertising and most importantly, supplying decades of opioids that contributed to nationwide opioid addiction. Manufacturers include Purdue Pharma, Cardinal Health, AmeriSourceBergen and San Francisco based pharmaceutical company McKesson.


“The first goal [of the lawsuit] is to have the opioid company stop flooding the market and creating a new generation of addicts that obviously impact lives in our community,” said Ryan Coonerty, third district supervisor for Santa Cruz County. “The second goal is that they help bear some of the costs of their previous irresponsible actions, that we are now having to bear with drug treatment and mental health and all kinds of other costs that have been left on society after these companies have reaped their profits.”


The Santa Cruz community is disproportionately affected by the national opioid epidemic, a mortality rate almost three times higher than the state average, according to Santa Cruz County.


The accidental drug overdoses in Santa Cruz County between Jan. and Feb. of 2018 are almost three times higher than the same time period in 2017. Of the eight deaths the county coroner analyzed this year, six people overdosed on opioids, according to the county coroner.


Santa Cruz does not currently have any county funded resources for opioid addiction, other than Janus Santa Cruz which is commissioned to operate a methadone clinic, a controlled substance distributed to people struggling with opiate dependency. While methadone has been shown to be the best method of treatment for opiate dependence, two of the eight people who died between Jan. and Feb. overdosed with methadone.


Santa Cruz and the nation need programs to reassess how we treat acute and chronic pain from a preventative and treatment perspective, said Denise Elerick, Director of the Santa Cruz Harm Reduction Coalition. Elerick believes pharmaceutical companies have an obligation to support the nation amidst the opioid epidemic.


“If [opioid manufacturers] could at least acknowledge their part in this and tap into some of those billions that they earned to help us clean up families, communities, children who have lost their parents,” Elerick said, “we are going to be feeling these effects for decades.”


Cost-wise, increased addiction rates affect funding and resources for healthcare and social services such as child protective services, Coonerty said. If this lawsuit is successful, funding will be allocated to aid county services, and service more members of the community.


Aside from financial aid for dependency or emergency services, the lawsuit aims to change the culture of negligent drug promotion by pharmaceutical companies, Coonerty said.


Despite numerous specific accounts of misbranding and racketeering outlined by lawsuits across the nation, John Parker, senior vice president of Healthcare Distribution Alliance, who represents the pharmaceutical companies, criticized the lawsuits in a public statement.


“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation,” Parker said in the statement.  


However, the Santa Cruz lawsuit outlines specific fraud and negligence the companies committed directly to Santa Cruz pharmacies and physicians.


Most people who struggle with opioid dependency report their first opioid experience to be from a prescription, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, which can often lead users to stronger opioids such as heroin.


Even when opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma modified its oxycodone formula to be less potent and addictive in 2014, hundreds of thousands of Americans were already addicted to its prescribed dosages, causing a national spike in heroin usage, said Santa Cruz County Coroner Stephany Fiore.


Santa Cruz, however, does not follow this national trend. Opioid related deaths trended up and down, but heroin usage remains constant.


Fiore is reviewing cases going back to 2007 to find relevant data for the lawsuit. The county as a whole is collecting data too, Coonerty said, documenting the cost of the epidemic on county resources, a number already exceeding millions.


All California lawsuits are projected to go to court with the national opioid litigation in the Ohio federal court, where the national lawsuits originated. A federal judge set a trial for March 2019.