Walgreens Helped Fuel San Francisco's Opioid Crisis, Judge Rules

Walgreens has contributed to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco through its sale of prescriptions across the city, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

The city of San Francisco sued Walgreens and several other drug manufacturers and distributors in 2018, accusing the companies of having a role in the city's opioid epidemic. The trial began in April, and all of the other defendants reached a settlement except for Walgreens.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer ruled that Walgreens failed to investigate suspicious opioid orders properly for nearly 15 years and said that the pharmaceutical chain's neglect in that area contributed to the city's drug crisis.

"Walgreens has regulatory obligations to take reasonable steps to prevent the drugs from being diverted and harming the public," Breyer wrote in a 112-page opinion. "The evidence at trial established that Walgreens breached these obligations."

Walgreens To Close Five San Francisco Locations
Walgreens has contributed to the city of San Francisco's opioid crisis, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday. In this photo, customers leave a Walgreens store that was set to be closed in the coming weeks on October 13, 2021, in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A later trial will determine the cost of damages the company will be obligated to pay the city of San Francisco. In the meantime, the company said it was "disappointed" by the decision and plans to appeal.

"We never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the 'pill mills' and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis," Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said, according to Reuters.

Engerman added in a statement to Newsweek: "We stand behind the professionalism and integrity of our pharmacists, dedicated healthcare professionals who live in the communities they serve. The plaintiff's attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable. We look forward to the opportunity to address these issues on appeal."

Peter Mougey, an attorney who represented San Francisco in the case, said that this verdict will help other cases involving pharmaceutical distributing companies, reported The Washington Post.

"Walgreens has hidden, covered up and run from the truth throughout the entirety of this five-year litigation," Mougey said. "Walgreens knew its system to detect and stop suspicious orders was nonexistent but continued to ship opioids at an alarming pace to increase profits. San Francisco is now one step closer to starting the healing process."

Walgreens was also found liable in 2021 for contributing to the opioid crisis in a lawsuit related to two Ohio counties, and it reached a $683 million settlement with the state of Florida in May, according to The Washington Post.

The opioid epidemic in San Francisco, which began in the 1990s, has worsened in recent years with the emergence of fentanyl, an extremely addictive painkiller that has caused an uptick in overdoses across the country.

According to data from the San Francisco Medical Examiner, in 2021, 650 people died from drug overdoses in the city. In 2020, the number was 712, and a majority of those deaths reportedly involved fentanyl.

In a paper published in The Lancet in early February, Stanford researchers estimated that if no new action is taken to address the opioid epidemic, there will be 1.22 million opioid deaths nationwide between 2020 and 2029.

Update 8/11/22, 9:48 a.m. ET: This story was updated with a statement from a Walgreens spokesman.