The opioid crisis in America is one of the most complicated public health issues ever to grip the nation. Whether it’s a discussion of the root causes of the epidemic and the roles of the corporations who make the drugs or the culture of prescription dependency that led the medical community to dole the pills out in such abundance in the first place, there is no simple answer to the problem regardless of what direction one may look.
The task of making some sort of progress in choosing one of those directions has fallen largely to one judge. A consolidation of lawsuits brought against Big Pharma by towns, cities, and even some states led to the formation of a multi-district litigation late last year. After a rather unusual start to the proceedings, the MDL panel selected U.S. District Judge Dan Polster to preside over the consolidation of some 64 lawsuits that will serve as an indicator of the direction of any sort of settlement agreements between the parties.
If recent news is any indication, Judge Polster is not doing this as simply an exercise in academics; he actually wants to effect some change. As the proceedings began earlier this year, the judge made it abundantly clear that the legal wrangling had gone on long enough. “People aren’t interested in figuring out the answer to interesting legal questions like pre-emption and learning intermediary, or unraveling complicated conspiracy theories,” he said. “My objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis and to do it in 2018.”
In the interest of pursuing that goal, he has begun exerting pressure on the federal agency tasked with enforcing the nation’s drug policy. A lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the trial requested that the DEA release the full contents of its database that tracks drug manufacturer and distributor transactions, as well as those of the pharmacies who eventually purchase the drugs for distribution to the public.
The DEA appeared to have no interest in sharing the full contents of the database. However, in a recent filing the agency proposed a compromise in which it would release a limited amount of data. Judge Polster ordered the agency to come to some sort of conclusion regarding its sharing of data and to make its intentions known sooner rather than later.
While one has to wonder why a federal agency would hesitate to release the information it tracks on what are essentially purely commercial transactions, even a limited release would, at least, give the parties involved another set of data to use to get a picture of the true reach of opioid distribution throughout the country. And, as Judge Polster said when issuing the order, it will help “track whose pills went where, specifically.”