After a three year-long effort by journalists at the Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, a federal judge on Monday finally lifted a protective order on a government database—which drug companies tried to keep hidden—that revealed how tens of billions of addictive opioid painkillers flooded communities nationwide in recent years.
As the Post reported Wednesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System (ARCOS) reveals that the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies distributed 76 billion OxyContin and Vicodin pills between 2006 and 2012, with states including West Virginia and Kentucky saturated with enough painkillers for every resident to have hundreds of their own.
The number of pills distributed annually rose 51 percent over seven years, with more than 12 billion dispensed in 2012. During this time, about 100,000 Americans died of prescription opioid overdoses.
As the Post reports, the database, which the DEA compiles based on sales data from drug companies, shows how “in case after case, the companies allowed the drugs to reach the streets of communities large and small, despite persistent red flags that those pills were being sold in apparent violation of federal law and diverted to the black market.”
“The database reveals what each company knew about the number of pills it was shipping and dispensing and precisely when they were aware of those volumes, year by year, town by town,” the Post reports.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) tweeted that the new information reveals how even as communities across the country were suffering, wealthy companies continued their “reckless pursuit of profit.”
The Post included in their report a map showing the areas where companies distributed the most opioid painkillers.
Between 2006 and 2012, the equivalent of about 66.5 pills per person poured into West Virginia, while about 63.3 pills per person were distributed in Kentucky. South Carolina, Nevada, and Tennessee also received copious amounts of the drugs.
The number of pills dispensed to the public over the time period in question far exceeds the data that was previously released in court filings and news reports.
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ARCOS was kept secret until the Post released its report on Wednesday, despite multiple lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies which contributed to the opioid epidemic. The DEA and Department of Justice joined pharmaceutical giants in pushing for the database to be kept secret, arguing its release could compromise ongoing investigations into the causes of the epidemic.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster lifted the protective order on ARCOS after the two newspapers’ Freedom of Information Act request was denied by the DEA, and after an appeals court reversed Polster’s earlier ruling against the publications. Polster is currently presiding over the largest civil action in U.S. history, with about 2,000 cities, towns, and counties suing pharmaceutical companies for their alleged contributions to the opioid crisis.