The filers of a statewide lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors have called upon law enforcement to assist them when the litigation goes to trial.
Association of Arkansas Counties litigation counsel member Colin Jorgensen asked Arkansas sheriffs on Tuesday to consider giving him examples of how opioids have negatively affected their communities to tell the jury. The lawsuit, which includes signatures from public officials in every county, major population city and the state government in Arkansas, was filed to hold manufacturers, distributors and a handful of state pharmacies and health care providers accountable for their alleged roles in opioid addiction, abuse and overdose deaths.
“If you were asked to tell one story to sort of summarize the impact of the opioid epidemic in your county, what would that story be?" Jorgensen asked sheriffs from counties across Arkansas on Tuesday at the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association Summer Convention in Fort Smith.
Officials with the Arkansas Association of Counties, the Arkansas Municipal League and the Arkansas Public Entities Risk Management Association filed the lawsuit on March 15 in Crittenden County Circuit Court. It aims to prove drug manufacturers and distributors' alleged responsibility for opioid addiction, abuse and overdoses in Arkansas, Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen said the reason he is reaching out to sheriffs for stories is to appeal to the jurors.
“You can talk about overdose death rates and prescription rates and all that stuff all day long, and it’s meaningful to people like me, but a jury’s eyes are going to glaze over three weeks into that," he said.
“One (story) is the amount of people coming into jail that are being arrested for opioid issues," Bill Hollenbeck, a vocal proponent for the lawsuit, said. The number of people arrested on suspicion of possession of Schedule I or II opioids could nearly fill the Sebastian County Jail to capacity once.
Jorgensen also asked sheriffs to provide him with local data in reference to opioids for the trial as well.
“This thing has such a grasp on people’s lives that it makes good people do bad things, and so it’s costing the state millions and millions of dollars to incarcerate the individuals," Hollenbeck said. "The fact of the matter is, we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”
Preliminary data from the Arkansas Prescription Drug Monitoring Program shows the state averaged around 108.1 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people in 2017, Jorgensen said. Of the 401 drug overdose deaths in Arkansas in 2016, 335 were opioid-related, according to the monitoring program.
The lawsuit was filed in March in Crittenden County Circuit Court against 52 opioid manufacturers and the three largest distributors in the country. A handful of criminally convicted local pharmacies and health care providers in Arkansas were also listed in the lawsuit, Jorgensen said.
Officials with the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represents distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, responded to the lawsuit after Fort Smith joined in January. John Parker, senior vice president of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said distributors arrange for storage, transport and delivery of medicines, and that the idea that distributors are solely responsible for written opioid prescriptions defies common sense.
Jorgensen said defendants have started to respond to the lawsuit since it was filed in March.