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Judge rules Walgreens contributed to San Francisco's opioid crisis by filling flood of questionable prescriptions

Judge rules Walgreens contributed to San Francisco's opioid crisis
Judge rules Walgreens contributed to San Francisco's opioid crisis 00:38

SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge ruled against Walgreens Wednesday in a lawsuit by the city of San Francisco, accusing the pharmacy giant of contributing to the opioid crisis by filling hundreds of thousands of questionable prescriptions over the span of nearly 15 years.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said in his ruling Walgreens pharmacists filled the prescriptions without having the time, staffing or resources to properly investigate red flags as required by law between 2006 and 2020. 

San Francisco sued Walgreens along with several drug manufacturers and distributors, accusing the companies of fueling an opioid overdose and addiction surge that created a public nuisance and failing to prevent the drugs from being diverted for illegal use. The trial began in April and all the defendants except Walgreens reached settlements with the city. 

Last month, opioid makers Allergan and Teva agreed to pay $54 million in cash and overdose reversal drugs as part of a settlement. The amount Walgreens now must pay will be determined in a later trial.

Drug overdose deaths have surged in the country, including in San Francisco. Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency last year in the Tenderloin neighborhood, saying something had to be done about the high concentration of drug dealers and people consuming drugs out in public.

The city attorney's office says San Francisco saw a nearly 500% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths between 2015 and 2020 and that on a typical day, roughly a quarter of visits at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital Emergency Department are opioid-related.

"This decision gives voice to the thousands of lives lost to the opioid epidemic," said San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu in a prepared statement. "This crisis did not come out of nowhere. It was created by the opioid industry, and local jurisdictions like San Francisco have had to shoulder the burden for far too long. We are grateful the Court heard our arguments and held Walgreens responsible for the damage they caused."

Walgreens told KPIX 5 in a statement that it was disappointed with the outcome of the trial and plans to appeal the decision. 

"The facts and the law do not support the court's decision, said Fraser Engerman, Senior Director of External Relations. "As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the "pill mills" and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis. We stand behind the professionalism and integrity of our pharmacists, dedicated healthcare professionals who live in the communities they serve. The plaintiff's attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable. We look forward to the opportunity to address these issues on appeal."

Earlier this year, a Stanford-Lancet Commission report found the COVID pandemic has exacerbated the opioid problem and called for sweeping reforms, targeting the medical community, the prison system, and better regulation of the pharmaceutical industry.

Stanford-Lancet Report on Opioid Crisis Calls For Immediate Action, Sweeping Reforms 02:11
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