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July 16, 2018

4/10/2018 7:29:00 AM
Lac du Flambeau tribe files federal lawsuit
The suit goes directly after opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers

Brian Jopek

The Lac du Flambeau Tribe of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians has filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies in response to the opioid epidemic.

The suit also names distributors and retailers, including Walgreens, CVS Health Corporation and Wal-Mart.

On March 27, the Vilas County board voted to have the county join nearly every other Wisconsin county - as well as many counties across the country - in a lawsuit against big pharmaceutical companies that produce opioids.

During that meeting, Vilas County supervisor and former tribal chairman for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Tom Maulson, said he wanted to know "where the Indian

nations stand in this lawsuit."

He said in the large lawsuits against tobacco companies over the years, the tribes had not been thought of.

"What is this county or any county gonna do to help Indian nations because we have the biggest drug problem in the area?" Maulson asked. "I'm tired of seeing our people die."

Three days later, on March 30, the tribe filed its own lawsuit.

Devastated tribes

A press release issued last Thursday by the tribe stated the lawsuit was filed because of the role those named in the litigation have had "in the opioid epidemic that has become a national crisis and devastated tribes."

"The prescription opioids epidemic has been building for years and is a current and ongoing nuisance on the property and to the lives of Lac du Flambeau residents," tribal president Joseph Wildcat, Sr. said. "While we continue to fight drug abuse alongside our Tri-County partners to eliminate the scourge, the Tribe seeks financial resources to adequately abate the epidemic."

The "tri-county partners" Wildcat was referring to are the county boards for Vilas, Oneida and Iron counties, which in February, agreed to form a new committee that will be charged to, according to wording in the resolution approved for its formation, "develop an action plan and periodically report to the governing bodies of the respective member entities."

According to the press release, the tribe and its members "have experienced substantial loss of resources, economic damages, addiction, disability, and harm to their health and welfare."

"We all are victims of a lengthy civil conspiracy, via fraud, misrepresentation, and intentional wrongful conduct, to cause as many people as possible to use and get addicted to opioid prescription pills," tribal attorney Andrew Adams III of Minneapolis-based Hogen Adams PLLC said. "All in an effort to profit billions of dollars with reckless disregard of consequences to American and Native American people."

Wrongful conduct

The different problems and issues created by the use of illicit drugs and by the abuse of opioids and opioid medications aren't a new problem; locally, in recent years, there have been several stories in The Lakeland Times about it.

The tribal council took formal action to combat it in late March 2013, when, with Maulson as its president, the council enacted a "state of emergency" that resulted in the arrest of several people and the banishment from the reservation of many more.

That "state of emergency" continues.

In January 2016, Lac du Flambeau police chief Bob Brandenburg, addressed a meeting of the Vilas County board's tribal concerns committee.

At the time, the committee was discussing several issues related to the illicit drug problem in town and on the reservation which prompted the state of emergency.

Brandenburg mentioned a bus people take every day from Lac du Flambeau to a for-profit, legal methadone clinic in Wausau.

Methadone, an opioid medication, reduces withdrawal symptoms in people addicted to heroin or other narcotic drugs.

The problem is methadone can be habit forming if not taken as prescribed and people can get it prescribed legally.

It gets misused, abused and sold just as any illegal, illicit drug.

Each morning, Brandenburg said, at around 3 or 4 a.m., the "methadone bus" departs Lac du Flambeau, headed for Wausau and the methadone clinic.

"If I could, I'd stop that bus at the town line on its way back," Brandenburg told the committee then.

The complaint brought by the tribe states prescription opioids killed over 40,000 Americans in 2017.

"Prescription opioids kill twice as many people in the U.S. as heroin," the complaint reads. "Prescription opioids and related drug overdose deaths exceed the number of car accident deaths in the United States. Nearly 150 Americans die every day from opioids overdoses. Almost 91 percent of persons who have a non-fatal overdose of opioids are prescribed opioids again within one year. One-third of all children who go into foster parent care do so because of the opioids addiction of their parent(s). Seven in 10 opioids overdoses that are treated in an emergency room due to abuse of prescription opioids. An opioid-addicted baby is born every 30 minutes in America."

Among other impacts of the opioid crisis on the Tribe is "approximately 60 percent of the tribe's annual births result in opioid addicted babies."

"In 2017 alone, 48 of the Tribe's 80 births resulted in opioid-addicted babies," the complaint reads.

The Tribe's press release said child welfare costs associated with opioid-addicted parents have skyrocketed.

"The Tribe's medical costs are overwhelming due to the costs of the opioid epidemic," it states. "Foster care costs have substantially increased. Education and addiction therapy costs have multiplied. The Tribe has suffered economic losses from the treatment and care of babies who are born addicted to opioids."

"The wrongful conduct of the opioid industry has allowed millions of opioid pills to be diverted from legitimate channels of distribution to the illicit black market in quantities that have fueled the opioid epidemic affecting the tribe," Adams said.

Brian Jopek may be reached via email at bjopek@lakelandtimes.com.

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