Years ago, it was common to open this newspaper and read about methamphetamine busts and, in some cases, deaths related to meth overdoses or explosions from a meth cook that occurred in houses where children were living.
Thankfully, we don’t hear quite as often about meth arrests anymore. A large reason for that is because Kentucky got tough on meth by passing laws to make it harder to obtain the products needed to produce it. But as locally produced meth is replaced by meth coming from Mexico, there is increasing concern about other hard drugs.
Heroin and other opioids have hit Kentucky hard in recent years, claiming many lives during that time. This drug problem is especially bad in northern and eastern Kentucky. Some have argued that these drugs became more popular after the state passed Kentucky All-Schedule Prescription Electronic Reporting. KASPER, to its credit, did a good job hampering meth, but its indirect effect has been the rise of other drugs.
It has been obvious for some time now that we must do more to curtail the availability of heroin and other opioids because too many lives are being taken. Some law enforcement officials refer to this as an epidemic and we would agree with their assessment.
More than 1,400 people died in Kentucky from drug overdoses in 2017, a 39 percent increase in just three years. The biggest culprit in these deaths was opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic form of the drug that is more potent. It’s also worth mentioning that Kentucky ranks fourth lowest of the 50 states for workforce participation. This could be attributed to the fact that the opioid epidemic is becoming the human capital crisis of our time.
These numbers show definitively that we have a serious problem on our hands that will take a long time to overcome. One person we believe is doing his part to help combat these deaths is Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear.
Beshear is suing McKesson Corp., a San Francisco-based pharmaceutical distributor, in state court, accusing the company of using misleading business practices to flood the state with dangerous and highly addictive prescription drugs and failing to report suspiciously large volumes of opioid shipments to state and federal authorities.
Beshear cites Floyd County as just an example. There are just more than 38,000 people living in Floyd County, located in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Yet between 2010 and 2016, McKesson shipped more than 18 million doses of opioid painkillers there, enough for each person to have 477 pills each. Beshear says that was illegal. Beshear made a very good point when he said, “These numbers are glaringly obvious. No responsible company would have seen these numbers and think: ‘All is well.’ ... Our lawsuit alleges they knew exactly what they were doing. They knew they were flooding these communities with dangerous and addictive drugs, and we’ve paid the price.”
Beshear’s lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court says McKesson is supposed to “monitor, identify, halt and, perhaps most importantly, report suspicious orders of controlled substances.” He says this did not happen, pointing to outsized supplies of opioids shipped to five eastern Kentucky counties. Altogether, those counties received more than 53 million doses of prescription opioids. Those counties have a combined population of 120,381.
McKesson spokeswoman Kristin Hunter Chasen said the company is just one link in the pharmaceutical supply chain, and that it distributes opioids only to pharmacies that are licensed with the state and registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. She pointed to a statement on the company’s website saying allegations that McKesson fueled opioid abuse are unfounded.
It appears that more safeguards need to be put in place by McKesson to monitor the amounts of opioids it is shipping to these counties. We don’t know their policies, so we won’t say they aren’t doing this already. Perhaps doctors in these counties who overprescribed share some responsibility as well? They are, after all, the final link in that supply chain. Don’t they need to act as monitors and make responsible decisions on how many opioids they prescribe? We certainly believe so.
Obviously, only time will tell if Beshear and the state will prevail in this lawsuit, but we are glad he is bringing the issue to the forefront in an effort to fight this epidemic.