Cherokee Nation Lawsuit Holds Drug Distributors Accountable for Opioid Diversion

From Karla Jo Helms
For the Novus Medical Detox Center

NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla., May 8, 2017 – The Cherokee Nation has filed a lawsuit against several leading prescription opioid wholesalers and retailers, alleging the defendants “have profited greatly by allowing the Cherokee Nation to be flooded with prescription opioids,” resulting in hundreds of Cherokee deaths and “hundreds of millions of dollars” in damages.(1) Novus Medical Detox Center (, a leading Florida-based drug treatment facility, examines the latest lawsuit targeting the prescription opioid industry and predicts the case will pave the way for legal action from other tribal nations.

The complaint reported that between 2003 and 2014, there were more than 350 opioid-related deaths within the Cherokee Nation, and estimated there were “over 10,000 hospital admissions or emergency-room visits and hundreds of thousands of instances of non-medical use of or addiction to opioids by Cherokee Nation citizens” during this period.(1) Government data shows that the rate of drug-related deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives is almost double that of the general population; in fact, from 1999 to 2013, the rates of prescription opioid overdose deaths among these communities nearly quadrupled.(2)

The lawsuit also outlined numerous settlements, fines and orders against the defendants as proof they knew or should have known they were facilitating widespread opioid diversion. For example, Cardinal Health agreed to a $34 million penalty in 2008 and another $34 million settlement in 2016, while McKesson Corporation agreed to pay a $13.25 million civil fine in 2008 and a $150 million settlement in 2017.(1) Yet despite these penalties, the complaint asserts that the defendants continue to contribute to illegal diversion, noting, “They pay fines as a cost of doing business in an industry which generates billions of dollars in revenue.”(1)

“The Cherokees’ lawsuit is the first filed by a tribal nation against opioid distributors and retailers. But given the harm that prescription opioids have done to the American Indian and Alaska Native populations as a whole, we’re likely to see other tribal nations follow suit,” predicted Bryn Wesch, CFO of Novus Medical Detox Center. “Opioids have taken a tremendous toll on these small but highly vulnerable communities, so it is critical to take immediate action to prevent further loss of life, health issues and economic consequences.”

Wesch applauds the Cherokee Nation for its preemptive actions to deter diversion, such as implementing a prescription monitoring program (PMP) before it was required elsewhere and eliminating widely abused opioids (such as hydrocodone) from its formulary.(1) She urges healthcare leaders and lawmakers to strengthen and better enforce regulations designed to prevent illegal diversion of prescription opioids, and to continue to hold manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies responsible for supply chain breaches that result in illegal diversion.

“Those who distribute and dispense prescription painkillers have a responsibility to identify, prevent and halt suspected cases of diversion. If they fail to do so, they are directly contributing to overdose deaths, hospitalizations and the growing prevalence of substance use disorders among tribal nations and the U.S. population as a whole,” stated Wesch. “If these companies do not undertake their own efforts to reverse the current opioid epidemic, then we can only hope that a growing number of lawsuits, fines and other penalties will force their hand.”

Finally, Wesch calls for federal, state and local governments to expand drug education, prevention and treatment programs in tribal communities, given that they have proven to be at particularly high risk for substance use disorders and overdose deaths. She advocates for access to medically supervised detox programs to help ease the pain and discomfort of prescription opioid withdrawal (, as well as drug rehab and support programs designed to prevent relapse and promote successful long-term recovery.Φ

  1. The District Court of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee Nation v. McKesson Corp., et al., No. CV-2017-203; filed April 20, 2017.
  1. Smith, Mary. “IHS Implements Groundbreaking New Policy Regarding Opioid Prescribing”; Indian Health Service newsroom; July 6, 2016.

Karla Jo Helms handles media inquiries for the Novus Medical Detox Center. For more information on Novus Medical Detox Center and its medically supervised opioid treatment programs, visit

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