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Maricopa County moves to curb the opioid crisis with approval of lawsuit settlement

Maricopa County has approved a settlement with pharmaceutical companies to combat the disastrous effects of the opioid epidemic, making $80 million available to the county, County Attorney Allister Adel announced Wednesday.

The money is part of a $550 million settlement for the state that will be divided among the 15 counties. Adele said Maricopa’s portion will go to nonprofits that help families affected by the crisis, as well as housing, job training and other services if they’re related to opioid abuse.

“We did not take the decision lightly to enter into litigation on a national level,” she said. “And as horrible as this epidemic due to opioids is, not all social problems can be addressed by lawsuits.”

The settlement, which was litigated over several years, is part of a national lawsuit spurred by state attorneys general against Johnson & Johnson and major distributors of opioids, and it covers thousands of lawsuits filed in various state and local courts, according to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.

The Arizona Department of Health Services has reported nearly 11,000 deaths from opioid use since 2017. Adel said the crisis is the leading cause of death for Americans younger than 50.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the epidemic, according to a September report by the American Medical Association.

But the legal battle over the liability of the U.S. opioid crisis was years in the making, as states, cities and counties sought compensation for the ravages addiction had on people and institutions. Adel said that the crisis affected police, courts and the medical examiner’s office.

Legal actions were condensed in 2017 by moving more than 2,000 pending lawsuits to a single federal judge in Ohio.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three waves of the epidemic have occurred since 1999. The current wave, it said, is overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, which is cheaper and highly potent.

Opioid use among teens also has skyrocketed. At Wednesday’s news conference, Kim Humphrey shared the impact of opioid addiction on his two sons, the first starting at 15.

Humphrey, who spent 32 years in law enforcement, said his years in antidrug education didn’t save his sons from addiction.

“I will tell you that we felt like we were the worst parents on the planet,” he said. “We felt alone, we did not know what to do. We were ashamed.”

Humphrey joined the support program Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL), where he found various resources that aided in the rehabilitation of his sons.

PAL and organizations like it will benefit from the settlement, Adel said.

Tom Liddy, litigation bureau chief at Maricopa County, said he hopes this settlement will be the first of many to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their part in the opioid crisis.

“This is a step in the right direction on a journey for accounting of healing,” Adel said. “We have a duty in the society to protect victims, to hold people accountable.”

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Brock Blasdell/Cronkite News

'We did not take the decision lightly to enter into litigation on a national level. And as horrible as this epidemic due to opioids is, not all social problems can be addressed by lawsuits,' Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel says.