In the latest news in the fight to curb the nation’s opioid epidemic, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that for the first time ever, it has filed charges against one of the country’s largest drug distributors and two of its former executives for selling highly addictive prescription opioids to pharmacies and ignoring blatant signs that the drugs were being used for ill gain.

Charges of drug trafficking were filed against New York-based Rochester Drug Co-Operative, former CEO Laurence Doud III, and former chief compliance officer William Pietruszewski. According to prosecutors, Rochester Drug Co-Operative’s sales of oxycodone jumped more than eightfold from about 5 million in 2012 to 42 million in 2016, and sales of the highly potent fentanyl grew from 60,000 in 2012 to 1.3 million in 2016.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman called it a “first of its kind” prosecution. “Executives of a pharmaceutical distributor and the distributor itself have been charged with drug trafficking, trafficking the same drugs that are fueling the opioid epidemic that is ravaging this country,” he said.

The company and its executives are accused of knowing that the drug sales were beyond any legitimate pharmacy’s needs, and that by reporting the issue a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation would be launched and its customer pharmacies shuttered.

A spokesman for the company admitted mistakes were made and vowed it would do better moving forward.

Doud served as the CEO for Rochester Drug Co-Operative from 1991 to 2017. Pietruszewski was an operations manager there from 2001 to 2018. Pietruszewski has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors. He faces a mandatory 10-year sentence. Doud has pleaded not guilty.

The drug distributor also faces civil charges, and has agreed to pay $20 million and be subject to three years of monitoring with DEA oversight.

Larger drug distributors – McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp., and Cardinal Health Inc. – have paid multi-millions to settle similar civil charges for alleged violations of the Controlled Substances Act. The distributors, along with several pharmacies and opioid manufacturers, are also named in a multidistrict litigation involving more than 1,600 cases alleging the companies worsened the opioid crisis.

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