By SYLVIA LOBATO
CONEJOS — Conejos County joined the city of Alamosa, along with Chaffee, Las Animas, Alamosa, and Otero counties last week in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver against a number of large national pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Johnson & Johnson and Cephalon Inc.
A similar suit was filed by Huerfano County in January and claims the companies used deceptive marketing practices that caused opioid use, overdoses and deaths to skyrocket in their communities.
The city and counties are seeking more than $75,000 in compensatory damages, along with what could be millions in punitive damages awarded by the court.
“We believe that these companies marketed opioids as safe to take and then residents wound up becoming addicted,” said Conejos County Attorney Nicolas Sarmiento. “We’ve been damaged by the undue burden that’s been caused by the people addicted to these opioids.”
Alamosa City Attorney Eric Schweisow explained the lawsuit is one aspect of trying to address the opioid problem, “but we’re going be involved in conversations both here locally — and I think probably nationwide — about ways in which we can come up with some sort of sustainable solution to get a handle on this thing.”
A section of the lawsuit says the defendants’ deception led to a huge increase in the number of opioid prescriptions — so many that, according to the plaintiffs, they exceeded the number of residents in the counties.
“In 2014, 17,941 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in Alamosa County, a county with a population of 16,654 residents,” the lawsuit says. “This number jumped to 20,960 prescriptions in 2015.”
Chaffee County, with 19,058 residents, had 25,943 opioid prescriptions dispensed in 2015. Otero County - population 18,295 - had 30,218 opioid prescriptions dispensed that year.
The plaintiffs claim excessive opioid prescriptions have also led to an increase in emergency room visits and crimes including car thefts, domestic violence, assault, kidnapping and child abuse.
The five counties have some of the highest opioid death rates in the state.