Police and social service workers search under an Everett overpass while administering a Point in Time survey of the homeless in Everett. The city of Everett is considering a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, arguing the manufacturer of OxyContin is responsible for the community’s surge in overdose deaths, homelessness and street crime. (Herald file)

Everett ready to sue OxyContin maker over opioid deaths, crime

EVERETT — The mayor in Snohomish County’s largest city, a place where addiction to heroin and other opioids is officially considered an epidemic, wants the manufacturer of the powerful painkiller OxyContin to start paying to repair the damage done to the community.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said he plans to ask the City Council on Wednesday to support a civil lawsuit by the city against Purdue Pharma.

The case would allege the drug manufacturer was negligent when it aggressively marketed OxyContin as a supposedly less-addictive alternative to other pain medication while simultaneously ignoring evidence that substantial quantities were diverted through “pill mills” to illegal drug traffickers.

OxyContin has addictive qualities on a par with morphine. The demand it created among people who became addicted planted the seeds here for what has become rampant use of heroin and other opioids, the city hopes to argue.

Everett has been studying for months how to make a case that Purdue is responsible for the community’s surge in overdose deaths, homelessness and street crime, Stephanson said.

The more the city and its attorneys have learned, the more convinced the mayor has become that the drug manufacturer needs to be held accountable.

“We are going to go at them, and we are going to go at them hard,” Stephanson said.

The family-owned pharmaceutical company is worth billions, according to a 2015 Forbes story. Purdue has racked up more than $35 billion in sales since launching OxyContin, with annual sales at $3 billion, according to the Forbes story.

It also has faced criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits across the country. In 2007, company executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to deceitful marketing practices and the company agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties and other costs.

Everett alleges that diversion and harm continued.

Some key evidence surfaced because of the federal prosecution of Jevon Lawson, formerly of Mill Creek, and people associated with a California-based clinic that illegally diverted OxyContin to drug traffickers.

Lawson was a California gang member who six years ago was making a name for himself in the rap world under the stage name Swag. The Daily Herald published a front-page story about him in 2011 after he was indicted for peddling large amounts of drugs in Snohomish County.

Lawson and his connection to Everett’s heroin problem was featured in an Los Angeles Times series in July. The Everett City Council began talking about Purdue’s possible involvement a few days later.

Lawson had caught the attention of local law enforcement as early as 2007, when a confidential informant reported buying crack from him. Cops were told that Lawson was getting out of the crack business. He’d found a more profitable product: OxyContin.

Federal agents raided his Mill Creek area home in 2008, seizing marijuana, a large amount of money and financial documents. It’s unclear why Lawson wasn’t prosecuted at the time.

As part of his 2011 plea agreement, Lawson admitted to selling large amounts of Oxy between 2008 and 2010, well after he was on law enforcement’s radar.

While Lawson was under investigation, local leaders already were discussing the surge of prescription pain medication abuse. The Daily Herald published a story in 2008 about a conference in Everett for health care workers about the effect of the abuse.

At the time, prosecutors told the crowd there was a spike in pharmacy robberies and other crimes tied to black market prescription drugs. They also were already seeing people switching to heroin, a cheaper alternative.

Lawson wasn’t the only illicit OxyContin supplier in Snohomish County. Federal agents cracked down on an Everett osteopath who operated a pain management clinic on Evergreen Way. Delbert Whetstone’s prescribing practices came under scrutiny after several drug dealers were arrested with prescription medication bottles bearing his name.

Investigators alleged that Whetstone had prescribed nearly 88,000 of 80 mg OxyContin in a 10-month period in 2009. In comparison, Providence Regional Medical Center Everett had ordered 13,400 of the tablets during the same time frame, according to court papers. Whetstone was sentenced in 2012 to three years in federal prison.

In 2010, under pressure, Purdue changed the formula of its product, making it more difficult to smoke. People addicted to the powerful prescription pain killer turned to heroin.

Heroin deaths rates have quadrupled over the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Snohomish County, heroin and prescription opioids were responsible for two-thirds of the 130 accidental overdose deaths in 2013.

Snohomish County Human Services Division and the county’s Health District compiled a report about heroin, overdose deaths and treatment trends. The report was released in 2015.

It showed that fatal heroin overdoses were happening most frequently in north Everett and the Tulalip Indian Reservation.

The spike in heroin use has taxed resources in Snohomish County. Law enforcement, the courts, health care and treatment providers, social service agencies and others have struggled to respond.

As heroin use has increased, so has the homeless population in the county. Business owners and neighbors are demanding solutions to an increase in panhandling, encampments and property crimes.

The Everett Police Department and Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office have teamed up officers with social workers in an effort to get people help, including treatment and housing. In the jail, staff is helping enroll inmates into Washington Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid program. That means once people are released they can access medical services, such as chemical dependency treatment or mental health resources.

Everett also is working to build a housing project that will offer 70 apartments for the chronically homeless.

Those are all costly programs that are being shouldered by taxpayers. Stephanson said Purdue has a responsibility to help bear the costs, particularly in the years ahead.

The lawsuit would be “an action we can take as a community to say ‘Enough is enough,’ ” the mayor said.

The drug company has been accused before of selling OxyContin in Washington without regard to its role in fueling addiction.

In May 2007, Rob McKenna, then state attorney general, announced a legal settlement to end litigation over how Purdue had marketed the powerful painkiller. At the time, Washington was one of roughly two dozen states around the country alleging the company had for years been attempting to increase the market for OxyContin while deliberately downplaying the risk of addiction and other harm.

Purdue’s salespeople at the time were compensated based in part on how much of the drug they sold, the complaint alleged. State attorneys accused the drug manufacturer of ignoring prescribing data that could have identified “pill mills” and other sources of abuse. The company also was accused of not sharing suspicions with law enforcement.

“Purdue sales representatives instead targeted the highest prescribers and encouraged them to prescribe more OxyContin, in larger doses, to more patients,” the 2007 complaint said. “Purdue’s marketing practices thus exacerbated the abuse and diversion risks.”

In exchange for an end to the pending lawsuits, the drug company agreed to pay the states $19.5 million. Washington’s share was $719,500. Under terms of the 2007 consent decree, Purdue admitted no wrongdoing.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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