The revelation that a staggering number of opioid doses came into Allegany County between 2006 and 2012 was shocking, but not surprising. (See: “Opioid epidemic ... ,” Aug. 13 Times-News, Page 1A.)
Now, we are wondering how much more of this poison has been sent here since then.
It’s common knowledge that our drug abuse rate is one of the highest in the state (only Kent and Cecil counties are worse), and the poison has to come from someplace. Not all of it is being imported by druggies from the metropolitan areas. Much of it apparently is coming here in ways that technically are legal.
A list of the top 10 pharmacies in Allegany County that filled opioid prescriptions during the time period and the number of dosage units was carried in our coverage. Some had multiple locations.
Don’t place the blame directly on the shoulders of the pharmacies and those who own or operate them. These are well-respected and reputable businesses.
The figures involve opioid prescriptions filled. Scrupulous pharmacies don’t just hand out controlled substances to people who come in with a wad of cash and ask for them. They require their customers to submit a prescription, and it has to come from a source they recognize and accept.
Physicians, nurse practitioners and certain mental health professionals can prescribe medicines. Clinical pharmacists and chiropractors can prescribe some medications in certain states, including those designed for tobacco-cessation, and pharmacists can prescribe birth control in Maryland and West Virginia.
A number of local health care providers have said they will no longer prescribe opioids.
Much of the fault lies with the big pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors that states, counties and cities are going after in court.
Last year, the governments of Allegany County, Cumberland and Frostburg hired the Poole Law Group of Hagerstown to represent them in lawsuits they have joined as plaintiffs with hundreds of other jurisdictions. Poole provided the information about the amount of opioids coming into the county.
Reports frequently surface about the ludicrous amounts of painkillers that have been shipped to places where they wouldn’t seem to be needed.
The Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette-Mail reported in January 2018 that over the past decade, out-of-state drug companies had shipped 20.8 million painkillers to two pharmacies located four blocks apart in Williamson, a town of 2,900 people.
It said that in 2008, Miami-Luken provided 5,624 pills for each resident of nearby Kermit (population 406). Between 2008 and 2015, it sent 4.3 million to a drugstore in Oceana (population about 1,300).
The Times-News began reporting about the devastating effect heroin and opioids have had on Cumberland and Allegany County in early 2017.
Initially, we were criticized for our coverage by people who thought it would make Cumberland look bad.
Our response was that this was about like saying you’re afraid the fire that just destroyed your house could have an adverse effect on your property value. The stories weren’t making Cumberland look bad. The drug epidemic was doing that.
Since then, awareness of the problem has grown dramatically. Many of our people in government, law enforcement, health care, schools and the private sector aren’t afraid to admit that the problem exists and are searching furiously for ways to resist and overcome it. They’re having some success.
The pharmaceutical industry is by no means rife with villains. Many companies spend huge sums developing and marketing products that help people overcome fatal or debilitating illnesses. Some even help patients who couldn’t otherwise afford to buy their drugs.
Still, they have been allowed to basically go their own way for too long without serious oversight in some areas — particularly when it comes to what many say is price-gouging for some of their products.
Cumberland and other jurisdictions won’t get rich if and when they prevail against the drug companies. Any money they receive would go toward covering costs and funding law enforcement expenses and treatment programs.
So far, drug manufacturers and distributors have either settled lawsuits (in which they don’t admit to any wrongdoing) or been forced to pay billions of dollars in damages.
Most of these cases involved fraud, deceptive practices that promote drug use, marketing the drugs as safe to use while knowing they are hideously addictive, or being part of a system in which pharmacies or doctors create “pill mill” operations.
Such companies have deep pockets. They mostly are allowed to set their own prices — a situation Congress could remedy but does not, and so can recoup any court-imposed losses. Pharmaceutical companies made nearly $30 million in campaign contributions to congressional candidates in 2016 — $23.6 million to incumbents.
Rather than just fining or suing the businesses they work for, it’s time to start prosecuting the architects of this abomination — the company executives who foster it — and inflicting them with substantial fines and prison sentences.