Legal Responses to the Opioid Crisis

Co-sponsored by the National Association of Attorneys General Training Research Institute and the Sheller Family Foundation

The Opioid Addiction Crisis has tragically impacted our country with an estimated annual death rate of 65,000 – more than the total loss of life from the Vietnam War and the death rate from HIV at the peak of the epidemic. Opioid abuse and addiction has become a vexing and complex public health issue that cuts across multiple sectors of our society. High risk groups include veterans and Native Americans. [1] It is an issue that requires the nation to commit planning and resources across multiple federal, state, and local agencies and institutions to mitigate the harm.

Prescribing opioids for physical pain to vulnerable populations suffering from a high degree of psychological distress has been a recipe for addiction. Unfortunately, the misleading marketing practices of some drug companies has contributed greatly to this problem. Despite recognition from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that we are lacking critical evidence about the safety and effectiveness of treating pain with opioids, the rate of opioid prescription for veterans as well as for the general population has increased exponentially over the past decade.

Many have begun to question the ethical and legal ramifications of persistent opioid prescription within the last few years.  How are the current laws and regulations addressing the crisis? Are they adequate, or do we need additional policies and legal solutions to help curb the widespread abuse? What are the implications of the “War on Drugs” on the opioid epidemic? State and local law enforcement have been in the vanguard of addressing this crisis, but many feel that the efforts of responsible agencies in the federal government lags behind.  Are state and local efforts being adequately supported by the federal government?  What kind of regulation is needed at both levels of government at this late stage in the crisis?  What measures should be taken to avoid a public health crisis of this dimension in the future? 

The Center for Ethics and Rule of Law (CERL) will host this high-level, one-day event to focus on possibilities for civil, criminal, and regulatory solutions to stem the morbidities and death from the crisis. We will draw from the ranks of health care professionals, lawyers, legislators, psychologists, and scholars from a variety of disciplines to discuss recent developments as well as the implications for legal and policy reform. Participants will address questions that affect each of their professional communities in different, but interrelated ways. What is the liability of pharmaceutical companies in relation to doctors? Are federal agencies, particularly the FDA, the Veterans Administration (VA) and possibly the CDC responsible for failing to protect veterans and other vulnerable consumers from the perils of addiction? 

This conference is timely, since both Pennsylvania and New York have recently filed suits against various pharmaceutical companies for their role in the epidemic. But such civil litigation suits are only one possible solution. There is also attention currently on both the problems of opioid addiction and the mental health crisis in the veteran community. In Pennsylvania it has become a top priority of Governor Tom Wolf’s Administration. 

Following the conference, CERL will produce one or more briefing papers to address legal and regulatory solutions to the crisis along a number of domains – criminal prosecutions, civil suits and increased regulatory oversight and management.