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City and County of San Francisco v. Purdue Pharma L.P.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.

Credit: Stephanie Rhee | Unsplash

The Opioid Epidemic did not arise by chance. Opioids were intentionally integrated into our society in the 1990s from the onset. Pharmaceutical companies introduced and marketed them as non-addictive. Pharmaceutical companies have turned a blind eye to the millions afflicted by their addictive and accessible substances. Nevertheless, despite titanic Pharmaceutical companies' instigation and neglect of the opioid epidemic, the fault is shared. As litigation and broad social movements attempt to dismantle the opioid crisis, the country may be taking a turn for the better.

Recently, Walgreens was held accountable for its over-the-counter opioid retail in San Francisco. The suit impacted pharmaceutical companies nationally and warned drug market participants that public policy and morality avail where unjust business practices do not.

Walgreens' Role in the Opioid Epidemic in San Francisco

The Walgreens pharmaceutical company has "fueled" the widespread opioid epidemic. For the first time and in great depth, the Court in City and County of San Francisco v. Purdue Pharma L.P recognized Walgreens's significant and insidious role in the epidemic. In violation of the Controlled Substance Act § 130, Walgreens failed to implement systems required for identifying and halting suspicious orders. Id. at 57-58, 89-97. Justice Bryers' decision contains numerous accounts expressing: Walgreens' deceit of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), how unprepared Walgreens facilities were to house the thousands of pills they were dispensing securely, how severely understaffed their pharmacists were, and how Walgreens was warned multiple times that its practices were violating federal law in San Francisco and other cities. Id. at 61-62, 83-89, 113-15.

Between December 1, 2010, to January 10, 2011, Walgreens ordered 3,271 opioids from a single distribution center. Id. at 68-70. Evidence indicated that the company knew individuals were abusing the opioid dispensing system. Id. at 185-88. Walgreens' executives responded that they recognized prescription drugs could be abused. Id. The DEA cited Walgreens because their pharmacies ' constantly failed' to exercise their corresponding responsibility." Id. at 187-88.

Walgreens' complicity in the opioid epidemic becomes more alarming in light of "multiple DEA enforcement actions" discovering Walgreens' failure to prevent the distribution of suspicious prescriptions. Id. at 84-86, 88-89. While their intent was never considered, evidence of their care and empathy toward the implications of their actions was insubstantial. Walgreens' business model is aimed at the opioid market's massive monetary yield: the market attracts not just consumer sales but incentives and gifts from invested corporations. In City and County of San Francisco v. Purdue Pharma L.P., the City of San Francisco proved Walgreens "engaged in unreasonable conduct by dispensing hundreds of thousands of red flag opioid prescriptions without due diligence in violation of [the Controlled Substance Act]." Id. at 181-82.

Why This Matters to Businesses Now

This decision exposes businesses' moral obligation to the public they serve, regardless of their prominence in a given market. In the period Walgreens entered the pharmacy market, it acquired millions of dollars at the expense of federal scrutiny. The public scrutiny Walgreens faces highlights the unique relationship between businesses and consumers, which is: businesses will always be held accountable by their consumers. Although Walgreens' founder initially sought entrepreneurship in a desirable market benefiting consumers, the company's business model turned sour. Consumers paid reasonable, coveted prices for accessible pharmaceutical goods, placing corporations in influential positions over consumer needs. However, the consumers that served pharmaceutical corporations with wealth and power can also take it away.

While the perceivable positive effects of obtaining accountability and justice against powerful business entities are limited, the consumer public ultimately determines business longevity and success. As illuminated by Walgreens' San Francisco trial, Walgreens is held accountable to its consumers. Its accountability will be realized by boycotting consumers or those dedicated to public service.

Walgreens is an example of a business going 'too hard and too fast,' potentially harming its longevity by seeking to earn fast millions from the opioid markets' blood money – money made by harnessing and instigating the suffering of others. In addition to the San Francisco lawsuit, Walgreens and other brand-named pharmacies are appealing a $650 million verdict in Ohio.

The Law Can Be Used as a Social Justice Tool

The opioid epidemic also sheds light on the array of careers lawyers may pursue. As stated above, Walgreens had multiple clashes with the DEA in California; however, it was only in 2022 that they were held liable to the City and County of San Francisco, and the City has partnered with law firms. If public interest and social justice careers are fruitful and fulfilling when vindicating injustices. While the consumer-to-pharmaceutical company pendulum swung towards consumers this year as a win for social justice, the opioid crisis arose from a deep level of corruption that continues to gain transparency.

The law profession is broader, more empathetic, and public-interest driven than in T.V. shows like Suits or The Lincoln Lawyer. The profession can be a field where those living amid injustice can fight for a voice, public protection, and the health of the nation, one lawsuit at a time.


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