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Andy Davis

WOODSTOCK – The Woodstock City Council voted unanimously after a closed session last week to join a growing class action lawsuit against more than 20 manufacturers and wholesalers of prescription drugs. Woodstock joins a rapidly growing number of municipalities, counties and states pursuing litigation.

Rome, Cartersville, Floyd County, Chattooga County and Whitfield County are the five named plaintiffs in the federal suit, originally filed March 2, and according to an article on the Albany Herald’s website, Lee County in southwest Georgia has also joined since the filing.

“It’s no secret that Cherokee County is located in what has been identified as the opioid triangle,” Woodstock City Manager Jeff Moon said. “The city has incurred expenses responding to police and fire calls directly related to this issue over the years.”

According to the 243-page lawsuit, more than 140 city, county and state governments have begun taking legal action against drug manufacturers and wholesalers, and each plaintiff in this case “has been damaged in an amount that exceeds $75,000.” The suit alleges that damages have come from the plaintiffs’ providing medical care, therapy, addiction treatment, law enforcement response and child care at their own expense in an effort to combat the national health epidemic. The documents also state that more than “100 counties, hundreds of municipalities and other government entities” in Georgia have been affected by the epidemic.

The suit claims that that manufacturers of various drugs “aggressively promoted and pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would rarely succumb to drug addiction.” The pharmaceutical companies persuaded doctors to prescribe the drugs, knowing of their danger, for corporate profit, the litigation states. Plaintiffs also assert that the named distributors and wholesalers “intentionally… breached their legal duties” to monitor and report on suspicious orders of opioids.

As a whole, defendants are charged with negligence, false advertising and deceptive trade practices, as well as violations of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Andy Davis, of Brinson, Askew, Berry law office in Rome, is the lead attorney in the litigation and city attorney for the city of Rome. Davis said the class action and others like it are only the first step in a process of recovering from the national opioid crisis.

“This lawsuit is one part of a whole myriad of things that are going to have to be done to try to help get us out of this epidemic. The lawsuit is one way to try to recoup funds for cities and counties that have had to expend for additional law enforcement, for social services and for trying to abate the nuisance that opioids have caused to the public health and welfare,” Davis said Wednesday. “The filing of the lawsuits (around the state and country) has already created such an awareness that local communities are all talking about ways to try to help curb the opioid abuse and use.”

The suit names specific medications, including OxyContin and Percocet, as having been mischaracterized by drug companies and distributors. OxyContin, it says, is one of defendant’s (Purdue) largest-selling opioid, and has been famously over-prescribed and under-regulated. Purdue’s national sales of the drug annually have risen four-fold since 2006’s $800 million year, and the drug now constitutes about 30 percent of the analgesics market, according to the court documents.

The suit says Georgia has been “especially ravaged” by the opioid crisis, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its claim that from 2001-2015, “Georgia’s death rate due to opioid overdose increased nearly 400 percent.” The Georgia Department of Health and the Office of Health Indicators of planning estimated that there were approximately 549 opioid-related drug overdose deaths in the state in 2015.

According to documents provided by the Cherokee County Marshal’s Office, there were 14 accidental overdose deaths involving prescription medication or heroin in the county in 2016. There were also five deaths listed as “undetermined,” which involved prescription medication. Heroin use has widely been linked to the overuse of prescription opioid medications.

Law enforcement in the county responds to fairly frequent overdose and opioid drug use calls, and if manufacturers are negligent in their regulation of how easily highly addictive drugs are being supplied, they should be held accountable, Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said.

“We do have a lot of calls when it comes to opioids and overdoses, and that’s not necessarily just heroin, but it’s primarily prescription medication, or a combination thereof,” Reynolds said.

The county has five Sheriff’s precincts, and they all deal with opioid and heroin use, and the office is considering hiring more narcotics agents to assist in the opioid fight, he said.

“When you attack crimes associated with those addictions, you’re also cutting down on thefts and burglaries and vehicle-related accidents – in some cases acts of violence or domestic violence. A lot of those things are related to addiction,” he said.

While local agencies have made extensive efforts to combat the crisis with pill drop boxes and raids of “pill mill” clinics, the solution to the opioid crisis locally and nationwide is not simply a law enforcement solution, Reynolds said.

“I don’t believe that law enforcement is the sole solution,” he said. “It’s working with various groups – whether it be accountability courts, probation management, recovery centers – and getting that person on a path to recovery, as opposed to just incarceration.”

Canton and Holly Springs have not yet indicated whether they will join the opioid class action suit that Woodstock joined last Monday.

Thomas is a government, business, crime and features reporter for the Cherokee Tribune and Ledger News. He is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and currently lives in Kennesaw, Georgia.

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