News Groups Demand Opioid Distribution Data Be Made Public

Media outlets want access to the info to support their coverage of the opioid epidemic and increase public accountability by manufacturers.

Some of the nation’s top news organizations, including the Washington Post, are demanding that the federal government release information about the sale and distribution of controlled substances by pharmaceutical distributors and manufacturers.

The information, which is part of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) federal opioid distribution database, was turned over as potential evidence in the hundreds of lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies for their alleged role in the national opioid crisis.

The media outlets want access to the information to support their coverage of the opioid epidemic and increase public accountability by manufacturers.

As the Associated Press reported, the government consented to submit opioid distribution data culled from 2006 to 2014 from its registry to these lawsuits, but with the requirement that it only be used for legal and law enforcement purposes.  

But on July 9, 2018, lawyers for the Washington Post and HD Media, which owns West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, filed a request in a Cleveland federal court for release of the records. The Associate Press, along with other news groups, has also requested access to the information.

“Where releasing records would merely bring embarrassment or adverse publicity to a corporation or a government agency, the records must be disclosed,” wrote Post lawyer Karen Lofton in a court filing on July 9. “In this case, disclosure of the distribution data would cause no conceivable harm to patients or other innocent individuals. If anything, their interests would be advanced by the public accountability that would be demanded in the wake of such disclosures.”

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors are opposed to a public release of the information, as is the government, which argued in a court filing in June that making public the database information would have a negative impact on not only the companies’ distribution methods, but also criminal investigations and state public record laws.

But lawyers countered by pointing to a 2016 article by the Gazette-Mail that revealed that drug companies made available more than 700 million pills to West Virginia residents between 2007 and 2012, a period in which more than 1,700 individuals in the state died from opioid overdoses.

The Gazette-Mail obtained the information from drug shipping sales records sent by the DEA to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey’s office and made public by a West Virginia district judge.

The lawyers presented the decision to release the information and the story that resulted as a prime example of why the national distribution data should be made public.

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