By GEOFF MULVIHILL, Associated Press
News organizations are pushing for the public release of data detailing the distribution of prescription opioids throughout the U.S., information that could show how drug manufacturers and distributors contributed to the nation's addiction and overdose crisis.
Attorneys for The Washington Post and HD Media, which owns The Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, filed requests Monday in federal court in Cleveland. They are advocating for release of records that the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has turned over as part of lawsuits between hundreds of local governments and the drug industry. Other news organizations, including The Associated Press, also have requested information from the federal opioid distribution database. "Where releasing records would merely bring embarrassment or adverse publicity to a corporation or a governmental agency, the records must be disclosed. In this case, disclosure of the (distribution) data would cause no conceivable harm to patients or other innocent individuals," Washington Post lawyer Karen Lofton wrote in a court filing Monday. "If anything, their interests would be advanced by the public accountability that would be demanded in the wake of such disclosures."
Drug manufacturers, distributors and the federal government object to making the information public. In a court filing last month, lawyers for the federal government argued that doing so would jeopardize the companies' trade secrets, criminal investigations and violate state public records laws. The database compiles information from the drug industry about the sales and distribution of controlled substances. The government refers to it for law enforcement purposes, although in legal papers it redacted descriptions of how it's used.
A West Virginia judge made some of the data public in 2016. The Gazette-Mail used it to report that 780 million pills flowed into the state of just 1.8 million residents over a six-year period. During that time, more than 1,700 West Virginians died from opioid overdoses. In their filing, lawyers for the Charleston newspaper pointed to that previous decision and the resulting story as an example of why the national distribution data should be released. The information is likely to be key evidence in the litigation over opioids. It's the only way to trace opioids from manufacturers to distributors to pharmacies, said Paul Farrell Jr., a lead lawyer for plaintiffs suing the drug industry and an advocate of making the data public.
"It will identify every pill mill in the country," he said. The federal government agreed to provide data from its registry for 2006 through 2014 to the parties in the hundreds of lawsuits over the impact of prescription opioids and related illicit drugs. That deal includes restrictions that it can be used only for litigation and law enforcement.
Cleveland-based U.S. District Judge Dan Polster is overseeing more than 800 lawsuits, most filed by governments, and is trying to get the sides to forge a settlement. If the cases go to trial, it's likely the distribution data would be presented as evidence. But if there's a mass settlement, the information may not be revealed.
Combined, opioids killed more than 42,000 Americans in 2016.