The opioid epidemic has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US over the past two decades, counting those from prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and generic oxycodone as well as illicit drugs such as heroin and illegally produced fentanyl.
The surge in deaths has led to more than 3,000 lawsuits filed by state and local governments, Native American tribes, unions, hospitals and other entities in state and federal courts over the toll of opioids. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency last year in the Tenderloin neighborhood, saying something had to be done about the high concentration of drug dealers and people consuming drugs in public.
The city attorney’s office says San Francisco saw a nearly 500% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths between 2015 and 2020 and that on a typical day, roughly a quarter of visits at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital Emergency Department are opioid-related.
In 2020, 712 people died of drug overdoses, compared with 257 people who died of COVID-19, according to the city health department.
A high percentage of an estimated 7,800 homeless people in San Francisco — many of whom pitch tents in the Tenderloin — are struggling with chronic addiction or severe mental illness, often both. Some people rant in the streets, nude and in need of medical help.
Pharmacy chains have been south less often than opioid makers or wholesalers that distribute pharmaceuticals more broadly. In one groundbreaking case, a federal jury in Ohio last year found CVS, Walgreens and Walmart recklessly distributed massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties.
In May, Walgreens reached a $683 million settlement with the state of Florida in a lawsuit accusing the company of improperly dispensing millions of painkillers that contributed to the opioid crisis. Walgreens did not admit wrongdoing in its agreement with Florida and will make payments to the state over 18 years.
The company also faces litigation in Alabama, Michigan and New Mexico, among other states.
Deerfield, Illinois-based Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. runs a network of around 9,000 drugstores in the United States. Walgreens and other prescription drug distributors have faced a slew of lawsuits over the opioid crisis.
This article was first published in the Associated Press, with contributions from Associated Press writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis.