Witness testimony begins in landmark W.Va. opioid trial

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Witness testimony has begun in a landmark opioid trial in which local governments in West Virginia have sued three large drug distributors accused of fueling the opioid epidemic.

Cabell County and the city of Huntington argue that drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp created a “public nuisance” by flooding the area with 80 million opioid doses over eight years and ignoring the signs that the community was being ravaged by addiction.

Similar lawsuits have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements, but this is the first time allegations have wound up at federal trial. The result could have huge effects on hundreds of similar lawsuits that have been filed across the country.

Testifying in federal court in Charleston on Tuesday, a doctor who specializes in addiction medicine explained how opioid drugs can take hold of its users and ruin their lives, according to The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington.

Dr. Corey Waller said that dopamine — a naturally occurring hormone that prompts happiness — is at the center of substance use disorder.

People feel more invincible as the amount of dopamine in their bodies rises, Waller said. Levels can reach 100 nanograms per deciliter on a great day but rise to 900 on semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone and heroin, according to the doctor.

The skyrocketing increase of dopamine from opioid medicine permanently harms the body, he said, leading to substance use disorder and the behavioral issues that come with it. More of the drug is needed during subsequent uses to feel the same satisfaction as the first high.

“When we disrupt that part of the brain, we really disrupt all aspects of … how we react,” Waller told the court, according to the newspaper.

A judge last month rejected the companies’ attempt to dismiss the case.

Attorneys for the defendants attempted to shift the blame away from their clients Tuesday by arguing that what happens after delivery is out of the suppliers’ control. They also pointed out that the companies — known as “The Big Three” — had no authority over illicit street drugs, the fuel of the current crisis.

The defendants argue that they filled orders when the Drug Enforcement Administration, West Virginia Board of Medicine and others asked for larger shipments.

West Virginia has the nation’s highest fatal opioid overdose rate and there have been about 1,100 opioid-related deaths and 7,000 overdoses that have occurred in Cabell County in the past decade, county attorney Paul Farrell Jr. said Monday, according to The Herald-Dispatch.

In separate, similar lawsuits, the state reached a $37 million settlement with McKesson in 2019 and $20 million with Cardinal Health and $16 million with AmerisourceBergen in 2017.

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