Netflix has released a documentary series portraying one father’s efforts to track down those responsible for his son’s drug overdose death – a journey that opens his eyes to addiction and leads him into the heart of America’s opioid epidemic.
Shown in four parts, The Pharmacist follows Dan Schneider, a retired pharmacist from St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, whose 22-year-old son was murdered buying crack In New Orleans.
Frustrated with law enforcement investigations of his son’s death (“The police have this attitude that maybe these kids got what they deserved,” Mr. Schneider says), Mr. Schneider walked the streets of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward looking for his son’s killer.
Witness to the early epidemic
Returning to work as a pharmacist, Mr. Schneider noticed that young adults about the age of his deceased son were filling prescriptions at a local pharmacy for “high-power opioid prescriptions,” including OxyContin.
Because of his son’s addiction and his work as a pharmacist, Mr. Schneider was uniquely positioned to recognize behaviors associated with addiction in customers filling opioid prescriptions at his pharmacy. He realized that they had no legitimate medical need for the drugs, but a serious chemical dependence on them.
The discovery led him to the practice of Dr. Jaqueline Cleggett, a pain management specialist who was running a pill mill, dispensing opioid pain killers to just about anyone who wanted them regardless of need.
Mr. Schneider found that the doctor’s clinic stayed open late into the night and opened in the early morning hours and accepted only cash.
He meticulously documented his findings and eventually had enough evidence to get Dr. Cleggett’s medical license revoked in 2002. The doctor was planning to appeal the decision but ended up missing an evidentiary hearing for her case because she was in a psychiatric hospital at the time.
Dr. Cleggett, who also became addicted to the opioids she prescribed, filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and had a car accident in 2006 that left her with debilitating injuries, including brain damage. She pled guilty to charges of illegally dispensing a controlled substance in 2009, striking a plea deal that allowed her to serve three months’ probation instead of the 20-year prison sentence and $1 million fine she faced for the crime.
Although Mr. Schneider witnessed firsthand how opioids were devastating his community, the nascent epidemic was only getting started.
The staggering human and financial costs
Today, more than 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses every day in the U.S. Nearly 50,000 die per year. According to government data, in 2017 and 2018 between 10.3 million and 11 million people misused prescription opioid drugs for the first time. Opioid misuse led to more than 1,000 emergency room visits every day in the same time period.
The devastating emotional toll the opioid epidemic has taken on families throughout the U.S. cannot be overstated. The financial toll has also drained community resources. The White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) determined that the opioid epidemic cost $696 billion in 2018 and more than $2.5 trillion for the four-year period from 2015 to 2018.
The CEA, which advises the President on economic issues affecting the U.S., created the report to account for the cost of lives lost by opioid overdoses as well as non-fatal consequences like health care for substance abuse treatment, criminal justice, and reduced productivity of the 2.4 million people suffering from opioid use disorders.
Now individuals and communities affected by the opioid crisis are taking the makers of these opioid painkillers, distributors, and pharmacies that peddled them to court.
In August 2019, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals were found responsible for escalating the opioid epidemic in the state of Oklahoma and were ordered to pay the state $572 million. Both Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, and Teva Pharmaceuticals settled before the trial began for $270 million and $85 million, respectively.
In September 2019, Purdue filed for bankruptcy after reaching a tentative $10 billion-plus settlement with state and local governments that were suing the company over the cost of the opioid epidemic. Many of the states involved in the litigation rejected the terms of the proposed settlement and said they would pursue further litigation to recover additional money, much of which was stashed away in offshore accounts and the personal wealth of the company owners, the Sackler family.
On Feb. 14, 2020, more than 20 state attorneys general rejected an $18 billion settlement offer from three major drug wholesalers — McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. — meant to end litigation against them for their role in the opioid crisis.
Lawyers in Beasley Allen’s Mass Torts Section are representing local governments holding opioid companies accountable for overdose deaths and economic damages in their communities caused by the opioid crisis. Attorneys are also investigating cases of serious injuries and illness – including addiction and overdose – related to opioid use and abuse, as well as cases of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) in babies born to mothers addicted to opioids. For more information, contact Melissa Prickett or Liz Eiland.