By now, the havoc wreaked by opioids on communities across the United States — especially white, rural areas — is well known. But particularly devastated were Native American tribes, who have suffered the highest death rate from prescription opioid overdoses of any ethnic or racial group.
The Miccosukee Tribe, based in western Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, is no exception. And now, it's joining municipalities across the country in suing a long list of drug manufacturers and distributors for unleashing the opioid epidemic. In a complaint filed last week in federal court, the tribe says it has been plagued by deaths and overdoses and has spent tens of millions of dollars addressing the damage.
"It's a pretty big majority of the tribe that's been affected by these opioids," says Coral Gables attorney Adam Moskowitz, who represents the group. "And each story is sadder than the next... It's something that we now know these companies knew would happen."
The complaint names as defendants drug manufacturers including Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin; Endo, the maker of Percocet; and Mallinckrodt, the maker of Roxicodone. Also named are pharmaceutical giants including CVS and Walgreens. The tribe argues the manufacturers "aggressively pushed" the dangerous drugs and misrepresented the potential for addiction. They convinced doctors to generously prescribe the drugs and "turned patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit," the complaint says.
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The pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, distributed opioids without fulfilling their duty as drug wholesalers to catch and warn of prescription medication being diverted for nonmedical purposes. This contributed to the crisis of pills flowing into the community, the Miccosukee Tribe argues.
Cities, counties, and states across the country have filed similar suits against Big Pharma in recent months, seeking to hold manufacturers and distributors accountable for the public health emergency that resulted in at least 200,000 overdose deaths in America between 2000 and 2015. Native American communities have also filed suits, the Cherokee and Navajo nations among them.
Statistics show why. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 8.4 of every 100,000 Native Americans were dying of opioid overdoses, more than whites at 7.9, African-Americans at 3.3, or Latinos at 2.2. Opioid overdose deaths among Native Americans nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2013. Among the Miccosukee Tribe, many members have died of overdoses, while others have become "shells of their former selves," the complaint says.
"This opioid epidemic," Moskowitz says, "has really hit Native American tribes across the country the hardest. "