Federal Prosecutors Open Criminal Probe Into Opioid Makers, Distributors

November 27, 2019 Updated: November 27, 2019

NEW YORK—At least six pharmaceutical companies in the United States that are involved in distributing or producing opioid painkillers are facing a federal criminal investigation over their alleged roles in contributing to the national overdose crisis.

The existence of the probe, first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Nov. 26, is in the early stages, and prosecutors are expected to subpoena more companies in the coming months, the newspaper said, citing unidentified people familiar with the investigation.

Two New York criminal defense attorneys told The Epoch Times that it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe that criminal charges against some of the companies will arise at some point, with one citing the Controlled Substance Act, which prosecutors may use in their case.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York has already subpoenaed five companies as part of the investigation: drugmakers Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Mallinckrodt Plc, Johnson & Johnson, and Amneal Pharmaceuticals Inc., and distributor McKesson Corp., according to regulatory filings.

Drug distributor AmerisourceBergen Corp. also has received a subpoena as part of the probe, according to the Journal. The company said in regulatory filings that it has received subpoenas from multiple U.S. attorneys, including the Eastern District of New York, but unlike the other companies, AmerisourceBergen didn’t specify the nature of the probe.

The Epoch Times reached out to the Eastern District office for confirmation of the investigation. John Marzulli, the office’s public information officer, declined to comment.

Some of the companies’ filings described the subpoenas as part of an industry-wide probe into anti-diversion policies and distribution of opioid medications under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

News of the federal investigation comes after state and local governments launched lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains, accusing them of fueling the opioid crisis.

One such company, Purdue Pharma, which made billions selling its prescription painkiller, OxyContin, is facing over 2,600 lawsuits asserting the company aggressively marketed and sold its drug as one with a low risk of addiction, despite knowing it wasn’t. Purdue, which has denied any wrongdoing, has filed for bankruptcy.

Several attorneys told The Epoch Times in September that they believe criminal charges against Purdue are warranted.

Jason Goldman, a former prosecutor and New York criminal defense attorney, told The Epoch Times that the federal probe wasn’t surprising given the increased scrutiny towards large pharmaceutical companies within the past year including some civil settlements and bankruptcy proceedings.

“I do think criminal charges will arise for at least some, if not all of the players,” he said, adding that the government is cracking down on the opioid crisis and interpreting the law in any way possible to hold big players accountable as a message to the industry.

Goldman says the companies will most likely comply with the subpoenas and look to cooperate early on with the investigation “under the guise of complete transparency.”

“Ultimately, they will try to avoid prosecution by showing they complied within the Controlled Substances Act, or are at least immune from criminal liability,” he added.

The opioid epidemic has been deemed a public health crisis and has claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 people between 1999 and 2017, according to the latest U.S. data. One estimate said the cost of the crisis has cost the U.S. economy at least $631 billion over a period of four years.

“I don’t think it would be a stretch to believe criminal charges will result, particularly if the Government can show these companies purposefully flooded communities with opioids while minimizing the clear risk of addiction and overdose,” Julie Rendelman, a New York criminal defense attorney, told The Epoch Times.

Rendelman, a former homicide prosecutor, said if there is enough evidence, prosecutors can use the Controlled Substance Act to go after the companies as they would in a typical drug dealer scenario.

Meanwhile, a report last month by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that the Drug Enforcement Agency was slow to address the opioid epidemic and authorized an increase in opioid production quotas despite the fact that overdose deaths were rising.

“If these companies’ actions go beyond civil liability, they should not be shielded from prosecution especially in light of an epidemic that has impacted so many throughout the nation,” she said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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