Drug distributor, former execs charged for fueling opioid crisis as legal campaign widens its scope

As federal and state attorneys intensify their efforts to hold a whole network of pharmaceutical actors accountable for fueling the opioid epidemic, for the first time a drug distributor is facing criminal charges related to their sales tactics and compliance failures.

Rochester Drug Cooperative, the sixth largest drug wholesaler in the US, has been accused of distributing narcotics that it knew “were being sold and used illicitly” and failing to report these improper uses to authorities. Separately, the investigation has also charged RDC’s former CEO Laurence Doud III and chief of compliance William Pietruszewski for criminal offenses.

The indictment follows a 2015 civil lawsuit that RDC ultimately settled, in which the company admitted it failed to report thousands of narcotics purchase orders to the DEA as they were required.

Geoffrey Berman

“This prosecution is the first of its kind: Executives of a pharmaceutical distributor and the distributor itself have been charged with drug trafficking — trafficking the same drugs that are fueling the opioid epidemic that is ravaging this country,” said Geoffrey Berman, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.

Criminal investigations began in 2017, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. RDC said it agreed to a $20 million settlement over five years to partly resolve the accusations in addition to a strict monitoring program, leading to a deferred prosecution.

But the execs remain enmeshed in criminal proceedings, with Pietruszewski pleading guilty to three counts of conspiracy and ex-CEO Doud — who claims RDC ousted him with the intent of pinning him as the scapegoat — contesting the charges.

Prosecutors in New York said RDC profited from the skyrocketing sales of opioids from 2012 to 2016, with their oxycodone tablets soaring more than 800% and fentanyl dosages rising 2000%. While the company identified about 8,300 potentially suspicious “orders of interest” — including for oxycodone — it reported just four to the DEA. In that period, Doud’s pay more than doubled to $1.5 million, they stated.

William Pietruszewski

Whatever comes of the case will likely set important precedents. Just a day before the criminal charges were filed, the New York Times reported that attorney generals in New York, Vermont and Washington State have also initiated new civil suits against giant distributors like McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. The accusations center around these companies’ brazen negligence in their gatekeeping role in the supply of opioids.

Opioid overdoses kill an average of 130 Americans per day. As healthcare officials scramble to contain its consequences, the nationwide legal campaign is still exploring new tactics to hold responsible all the actors that played a part in the crisis — from the drugmakers marketing opioids to the doctors prescribing them.

Image: Laurence Doud. AP IMAGES

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Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
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