Denver is suing drug companies to help pay for the effects of the opioid crisis

Between 2008 and 2017, opioid-related overdoses killed 870 Denverites. The city blames big drug companies for flooding the streets with pharmaceuticals.
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Mayor Michael Hancock makes his State of the City address at the Carla Madison Recreation Center, July 16, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By moving forward with a safe drug use site last year, Denver officials made clear their intentions to treat people addicted to opioids as patients, not criminals. Now the city is suing 20 drug companies for aggressively pushing prescription drugs onto the market and downplaying their risks to public health.

The complaint alleges civil conspiracy, fraud and deceit, unjust enrichment, gross negligence, and causing a public nuisance. It also claims that the pharmaceutical companies violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Johnson & Johnson is the most recognizable defendant (a full list is at the bottom of this article).

"These companies knew better, and they still allowed the devastation to occur in our communities, and communities across the United States," Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement. "This crisis could have and should have been avoided. So, we're using every legal tool available to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors liable for the social and economic devastation their actions have caused in our cities, our counties and to our people."

Between 2008 and 2017, opioid-related overdoses killed 870 Denverites, according to the Office of the Medical Examiner. The city says the crisis, "caused by defendants," has hit nearly every corner of Denver's government services.

"This crisis did not happen by accident, a press release from the mayor's office states. "It was created by deliberate and systematic practices of pharmaceutical companies that, over approximately the last 20 years, provided false and misleading information to doctors and patients about the safety and effectiveness of prescription opioids."

Drug manufacturers told doctors that the chance of addiction to opioid-based pain killers was very low and overcoming dependence would be simple, according to the complaint. They also touted prescription opioids as safe solutions for chronic pain without data, the complaint alleges.

A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found neither of those claims were true, and is foundational to the complaint.

At the state level, Hancock and other mayors who filed the lawsuit Monday will likely have the support of Attorney General Phil Weiser. Last September, Weiser's predecessor Cynthia Coffman sued Purdue Pharma for its alleged role in the opioid epidemic.

Similar to the municipal litigation, the state's lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma cited "fraudulent and deceptive marketing" of prescription opioids in helping play a significant role in the opioid crisis. It claims Purdue violated the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.

Weiser said following his investiture ceremony last week he intends to support the state's lawsuit and potentially add defendants. He even has plans for how to use potential settlement money."

"The endgame there has to be that we're going to get an amount of money that we can use to address the effects of this epidemic, which have been crippling across the state," Weiser said. "I've seen them first-hand. We're going to keep that as a top priority."

Sixteen entities joined Denver in the lawsuit: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Fremont, Larimer and Teller counties, Aurora, Black Hawk, Commerce City, Hudson, Northglenn, Westminster, and the Tri-County Health Department. Jefferson County and Thornton have filed similar but separate complaints.

Here are the defendants:

  • Purdue Pharma, L.P.
  • Purdue Pharma, Inc.
  • The Purdue Frederick Company, Inc.
  • Endo Health Solutions Inc.
  • Endo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
  • Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
  • Johnson & Johnson;
  • Teva Pharmaceuticals Industries, Ltd.
  • Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc.
  • Cephalon, Inc.
  • Allergan plc formerly known as Actavis plc
  • Allergan Finance, LLC formerly known as Actavis, Inc. formerly known as Watson Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
  • Watson Laboratories, Inc.
  • Actavis, LLC
  • Actavis Pharma, Inc. formerly known as Watson Pharma, Inc
  • Mallinckrodt plc
  • Mallinckrodt, LLC
  • SpecGX, LLC
  • Cardinal Health, Inc.
  • McKesson Corporation
  • AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation

Denverite reporter Esteban L. Hernandez contributed reporting to this story. 

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