Portland ready to join lawsuits against opioid producers

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PORTLAND — The city is ready to take the fight against opioid addiction to what it believes is a primary source of the problems.

City councilors on Monday approved a resolution allowing Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta to work with two law firms “to prosecute the city’s legal claims against manufacturers and distributors of opioids arising out of the manufacturers’ and distributors’ fraudulent and negligent marketing and distribution of opioids.”

The resolution passed without opposition or comments from councilors. West-Chuhta said the lawsuit would be filed on a contingency basis, without upfront legal costs. Attorneys from New York-based Napoli Shkolnik and Trafton, Matzen, Belleau & Frenette of Auburn would keep one-third of any settlement reached.

West-Chuhta said details on which companies could face litigation, which court would initially hear the case and what damages the city would seek have not been determined.

On Sept. 15, City Manager Jon Jennings said the city had been approached by Trafton about a possible suit. Napoli is involved in a variety of pharmaceutical litigation, according to its website, including suits against opioid manufacturers filed in Merrimack County, New Hampshire; Dayton, Ohio, and Mora County, New Mexico.

A primary target of the suits is Purdue Pharma, the Connecticut-based maker of OxyContin, originally developed as a painkiller for use by cancer patients. It was first approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in 1995. OxyContin later came into wider prescribed use and has been blamed as a root cause of opioid addictions that have resulted in heroin use.

“Drug use and drug addiction have worsened since the development of prescription painkillers based on synthetic opiates,” West-Chuhta said in a council memo. “Many believe the drug manufacturers share some of the blame for the growing problem of drug addiction, because these drugs were prescribed with too little caution by doctors at the companies’ urging.”

Purdue Pharma was also sued in 2007 by the state of Kentucky and other plaintiffs who said the company falsely marketed OxyContin as nonaddictive. The company reformulated the drug in 2010 and settled with Kentucky for $24 million in 2015. Kentucky has since launched a new round of suits against the company.

As far back as 2002, a state Department of Health & Human Services report called OxyContin addiction “Maine’s Newest Epidemic.” By the end of the decade, addiction to synthetic opioid pills was blamed for surging crime rates throughout the state.

As states, including Florida, implemented stricter regulations on clinics that dispense pills throughout the country, a shift to heroin use began.

“In 2010, prescription drugs drove everything. We are seeing a shift where heroin is dominating,” Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy E. McKinney said in 2015.

In 2015, a study by the U.S. Department of Justice found four of five people who had begun using heroin had first used legally prescribed opioids, although the drugs may not have been directly prescribed to them. The finding came as overdose deaths related to heroin increased in Maine.

In 2011, the state recorded 156 deaths attributable to drugs. Five of the deaths were linked to heroin, 36 to oxycodone, marketed often as OxyContin. In the first six months of 2017, there were 185 overdose deaths in Maine, according to a Sept. 6 announcement from Dr. Marcella Sorg of the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. 

Sorg said fentanyl, an opioid either mixed with or sold as heroin, caused 61 percent of the deaths, while pharmaceutical opioids played a role in 30 percent of the deaths and heroin contributed to 22 percent of the deaths this year. Heroin-related deaths had decreased from 32 percent overdose deaths in 2016, but fentanyl-related deaths were up from 52 percent of 2016 overdoses.

Overall in 2016, the state recorded 376 overdose deaths, 42 in Portland. Zoe Odlin-Platz, who oversees the privately funded needle exchange at the India Street Public Health Center, said there are more than 2,700 people enrolled there, with more than 850 exchanging needles in 2016.

In all, more than 160,000 needles were collected, and more than 157,000 distributed. The needle exchange now distributes naloxone, which blocks the effects of an opioid overdose and is marketed as Narcan.

Last month, Odlin-Platz said the needle exchange collected more than 17,500 needles, distributed almost 16,000, along with 445 Narcan doses.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.