3 SW Va. counties among many suing drug makers over opioids; Washington Post takes a look with text, pictures, audio: ‘We was addicted to their pills, but they was addicted to the money’

L-R: Lee, Wise and Russell counties; City of Norton is within Wise (Wikipedia map)

“Towns and cities across America are fighting back against the drug industry, seeking billions of dollars in damages to treat addiction and rebuild their communities,” through a lawsuit in federal court in Cleveland, Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post reports, in a deep, multimedia story from Southwest Virginia — where three counties, two of which border Kentucky, and the City of Norton are plaintiffs in the suit.

In photographs, audio, video and text, the story is told by a Post team and people who are in recovery, including some who relapse; a police officer who saw the epidemic coming but was largely ignored; pharmacists who refused to fill dodgy prescriptions; and the district director of the state health department. “People here are familiar with pain,” Achenbach writes. “Coal miners tell stories of explosions they survived. Disability rates are high. This was a place where the purveyors of pain pills found a ready market.”

Jason Boyd and daughter (Washington Post photo by Melina Mara)

The most compelling account comes from Jason Boyd, a recovering and relapsing father of four who makes a case that sounds like a good opening or closing argument in a trial: “We was addicted to their pills, but they was addicted to the money, because that’s what it is about. The definition of murder is when you sit and you plan about how killing somebody. Well that’s pretty much the definition of what they done. They sit back and say, ‘All right, this is addictive,’ but it’s same thing as just sitting there saying, ‘Well, we will murder a whole bunch people and make millions of dollars off of it.’ ”

Achenbach notes, “The drug companies issued broad defenses of their actions during the opioid epidemic. They have said previously that they were trying to sell legal painkillers to legitimate pain patients who had prescriptions. They have blamed the epidemic on over-prescribing by physicians and also on corrupt doctors and pharmacists who worked in ‘pill mills’ that handed out drugs with few questions asked. The companies also said they should not be held responsible for the actions of people who abused the drugs.”

Those statements were made to The Post last month in response to its release of a Drug Enforcement Administration database that is central to the lawsuit, Achenbach writes. It “became public through legal action by The Washington Post and HD Media, owner of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia. Over seven years, the database shows, drug companies shipped a combined 74 million opioid pills to the city of Norton and the three surrounding counties — enough for 106 pills per resident every year.” The city and Lee and Dickenson counties are among the plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit in Virginia, The Coalfield Progress reports.

The Post reported that the database showed Norton, a town of 4,000, received more pain pills per person, 306, than any other place in America in 2006-12. That is misleading, City Manager Fred Ramey told the Progress, “since all demand is not local” and Norton “is a regional commercial hub and home to two hospitals, a VA clinic, and regional cancer facility along with a number of doctors that serve the medical needs of a multi-county area that includes a portion of Eastern Kentucky.”

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