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Opening statements heard in Florida's lawsuit against Walgreens

The trial over the opioid crisis is taking place in Pasco County Circuit Court.

NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. — Both sides gave their opening statements Monday inside a Pasco County courtroom – in what could be a landmark legal case in the battle against drug addiction: Florida v. Walgreens.

The state is suing the drugstore chain claiming Walgreens bears some responsibility for the costly addiction issues facing thousands of people in our state and costing Florida millions of dollars in taxpayer resources.

Lawyers for Florida described Walgreens’ dispensing of the addictive drugs – like it was Tylenol. The state say Walgreens knowingly profited at the expense of others, including addicts who’ve seen their lives destroyed.

Florida, they say, has spent millions in taxpayer resources to battle waves of addiction. A Walgreens distribution center for example, they said, had sold 2.2 million tablets to a single Walgreens store in Hudson.

That, they say, equates to a six-month supply for each of the city’s 12,000 residents. 

Brandon Spencer, an addict turned advocate, says he and others are watching the trial closely, and believes there is no shortage of blame to go around.  

“Had It not been so easy. Had the doctors not just been writing those scripts, so freely, have there been checks and balances, had there not been people taking advantage of people’s disabilities as an opportunity to line their pockets, we may be in a better position today,” said Spencer.

Walgreen’s attorneys say Florida’s own Attorney General’s Office failed to act for years even as pill mills flourished.

The state, they say, has publicly blamed – and sued – drug manufacturers – accusing them of lying to pharmacies like Walgreens.

The pharmacy’s lawyers say they didn’t manufacture the pills. They didn’t approve or prescribe them.

Walgreens, they say, responsibly filled prescriptions approved for patients by their doctors.

The pharmacist is not there to second-guess the doctor or choose a different treatment that the pharmacist thinks might be better,” said Walgreens lawyer Steve Derringer.

Florida has already settled out of court for over $3 billion with other pharmaceutical suppliers. Most recently, that included an $870 million opioid abatement settlement with drug chain CVS.

The Walgreens case marks the first time Florida is actually taking a drug distribution company to court. 

The case will unfold in the Pasco County Circuit Court in front of Judge Kimberly Sharpe Byrd. 

The point of the trial is to hold Walgreens "accountable for its role in helping create and fuel the deadly opioid crisis devastating Florida families and draining taxpayer-funded resources," Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody's office stated in part. 

Moody said Florida has already collected more than $3 billion from other pharmaceutical companies over the course of its "historic" opioid litigation.

"I am encouraged that all the other defendants in our historic opioid litigation stepped up, and we are recovering more than $3 billion to help Florida address the devastation caused by the opioid epidemic," Moody said in a statement. "It’s time for Walgreens to face accountability for their part in fueling the opioid crisis, and my team is prepared to vigorously try our strong case against them."

The opioid epidemic has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. over the past two decades, counting those from prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and generic oxycodone as well as illicit drugs such as heroin and illegally produced fentanyl.

In the 2010s, state and local governments filed thousands of lawsuits against companies that make and distribute the drugs seeking to hold them accountable. A handful of cases have gone to trial, but many more have been settled, particularly over the last year.

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma has a tentative nationwide deal that includes $6 billion in cash from members of the Sackler family who own the company; drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and the distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson have finalized settlements totaling $26 billion.

At the end of March, Moody announced the CVS drug store company and pharmaceutical companies will pay Florida a combined $860 million as part of the settlement of an opioid epidemic case. 

Other drugmakers, including CVS, Teva and Endo, have been settling state-by-state as they did in Florida.

In all, settlements, civil and criminal penalties since 2007 have totaled over $45 billion, according to an Associated Press tally.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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