McLean County could join the growing list of state and local governments suing big pharmaceutical companies for distribution practices that they say contributed to the opioid crisis.
During a daylong seminar Tuesday at Illinois State University, municipal trial lawyer and now private attorney Melissa Sims said one company funneled at least $35.5 million worth of opioids into McLean County in the past five years. Sims said Purdue Pharma did not fully disclose the addictive nature of the drugs that were wrongly marketed as slow-release pain medication.
“They have caused people to purchase medication they otherwise would not be able to do,” said Sims. She said OxyContin was marketed in 1996 as a slow-release medication which spares patients from anxious clock-watching when pain must be controlled over a long period of time.
“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,” Purdue has said in a statement to other media outlets. “We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution.”
Tuesday’s event was co-sponsored by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of Illinois and the McLean County Bar Association. It comes as communities across the country grapple with an opioid crisis that President Donald Trump recently declared a public health emergency.
In McLean County, there were 10 opioid-related deaths just in October. That brings this year’s total overdose death toll to 33, more than double the total for 2016, plus five other drug-related deaths.
McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said the battle against the opioid-heroin crisis must be fought on multiple fronts.
“We need to take a look at why it’s being prescribed, is it necessary and we need to better monitor these prescriptions,” Sandage said.
He’s also in favor of a program like Safe Passage in Dixon that allows addicts to get help if they walk into a police station and ask for it. But Sandage said there must be enough treatment beds and state government support to help addicts who can’t afford in-patient treatment and ongoing support.
Sims is working to land a federal grant that could provide support for free, in-patient treatment in a facility that would be, as she put it, jail-like. Patients could not just walk out. Sandage is supportive of anything to help addicts recover especially because for many it can take multiple attempts.
McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers also believes there needs to be a cultural shift in the way society treats pain and discomfort.
He told the story of a dad who pleaded with him to let his teenage daughter off the hook in a drug case involving opioids. Chambers said when he told the father he could not do that, the dad told Chambers, “I did this.” The desperate father explained he gave his daughter one of his Xanax pills when she told him about some anxiety she was having.
“There certainly is a place for medication in our society where this is necessary, but we’ve just gotten into this habit of for everything, take a pill,” said Chambers. “The same way that some people were taking Ibuprofen 20 years ago now they are taking Adderall and Xanax with the same casualness.”
Chambers also said McLean County's drug court has been successful. He also chided critics of drug courts across the country who look only at recidivism rates.
"Even if you're only successful in helping 20 percent of addicts recover and stay clean, you've just allowed two out of 10 people to get their lives back,” Chambers said.
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