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U.S. pharmacies are under trial for their involvement in the opioid crisis


This is a week for news made by people who brought receipts. We have a story of documents leaked from Facebook, a story of documents revealing the hidden financial dealings of global elites and a story of documents from inside companies running pharmacies that sold opioids. Lawyers in Cleveland highlighted those papers as a trial began against CVS, Giant Eagle, Walgreens and Walmart - all accused of recklessly selling pain pills and fueling a black market, although they deny wrongdoing. We should note, the Walton Family Foundation, which is created by the founders of Walmart, is an NPR sponsor, and so is Walgreens.

Our addiction correspondent Brian Mann is in Cleveland. Hey there, Brian.


INSKEEP: OK. These companies market themselves as places you can trust. But what is the story now emerging in court?

MANN: Yeah. You know, Steve, one reason so many companies involved in the opioid business settled cases like this is they don't want to go through weeks of embarrassing revelations in court. And you could really see why yesterday. Mark Lanier, an attorney representing two Ohio counties at the center of this case, he told the jury these pharmacy chains were so irresponsible with their opioid dispensing practices that drug dealers were able to use their outlets to build this black-market pipeline of prescription pain pills - one that stretched all the way from Florida here to Ohio.

INSKEEP: And what do the documents reveal about that alleged black-market pipeline?

MANN: Yeah. This was interesting. During his opening statement yesterday, Mark Lanier quoted internal memos that appear to show at least some corporate executives felt they had a serious problem with these pills. One Walgreens document read - and I'm quoting here - "Walgreens is not verifying the legitimacy of suspicious orders, which could lead the fulfillment of an illicit order." And Lanier later read from another document - read this into the court record from CVS, the pharmacy chain, where a company employee allegedly wrote - again, I'm quoting here, Steve - "I may have been naive to believe we were doing everything we could to reduce the growth of this tragic problem." And going forward, sources tell me, we'll hear about more documents like this one as the trial proceeds.

INSKEEP: What are the companies saying here in opening arguments?

MANN: Well, we've heard so far from Casper Stoffelmayr. He's lead attorney for Walgreens. He pushed back hard and said to the jury that this portrait of Walgreens handling opioids carelessly doesn't match reality. He said the company's pharmacists tried to be cautious with these highly addictive pills. And Stoffelmayr also rolled out an argument we expect to hear more from the other pharmacy chains in the days ahead, that the blame for this opioid epidemic lies elsewhere - you know, with doctors who prescribe too many pills, with drugmakers who lied about the safety of opioids, with government regulators who didn't crack down soon enough.

But I have to say, attorneys for these companies do not have an easy job ahead. They're going to have to convince these local juries - jurors on this panel that it made sense for their pharmacy chains to keep dispensing millions of these opioid pills year after year in their community at a time when addiction and overdose deaths just kept rising.

INSKEEP: What is that - what is at stake as that jury considers the case?

MANN: Well, first, of course, there's a lot of money on the line, as well as these companies' reputations. This trial in Cleveland is seen widely as a test case. It's going to help establish what, if any, liability these corporations bear for the opioid crisis, not just here, but all over the country. If this jury says these companies are on the hook and should pay to help solve the crisis, it could eventually cost the firms tens of billions of dollars.

But I want to say quickly, Steve, it's not just money. This is all life-and-death stuff. Experts say if that money is paid out, it could pay for drug treatment and addiction programs desperately needed right now - drug overdose deaths, of course, still rising faster than ever.

INSKEEP: Wow. Brian, thanks so much.

MANN: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Mann is in Cleveland for the first-ever federal opioid trial focused on big pharmacy chains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.