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Federal Prosecutors Are Criminally Charging an Opioid Distributor for the First Time

The charges mean that two former Rochester Drug Company leaders could face prison time.

Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against a major opioid distributing company on Tuesday. This is the first time a distributing company, which supplies drugs made by pharmaceutical companies to pharmacies, has faced criminal, and not just civil, complaints for its alleged role in the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic in the United States. The charges mean that two former Rochester Drug Company leaders, former chief executive officer Laurence F. Doud III and former chief compliance officer William Pietruszcewski, could face prison time, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York.

Prosecutors say senior management at the Rochester Drug Company, based in New York State, knew some of its pharmacy clients were selling opioids illegally, but hid that fact from the Drug Enforcement Administration. The company didn't want to lose some of its best customers, the DEA and federal prosecutors say. The company doesn't dispute the charges, the Washington Post reports. Pietruszcewski pled guilty and is cooperating with authorities, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Although opioid overdoses are now driven by illicit street drugs, the evidence shows that the wide availability of legally manufactured, prescription opioids in the early 2000s helped kick off the addiction crisis of today. Earlier this month, I traced that evidence, starting from a report published eight years ago:

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documented that, between 1999 and the late 2000s, sales of opioid painkillers—like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet—quadrupled. At the same time, overdose deaths involving opioids almost quadrupled, and the proportion of people showing up in addiction treatment centers saying they had an opioid addiction went up 600 percent.

The ready flow of pills ensured both folks with legitimate prescriptions and their friends and family had plenty of extra pills to use, misuse, and become addicted to. Meanwhile, many entities, from pharmaceutical companies to distributors to black-market dealers, profited. Lawsuits like today's represent efforts to make them pay it back, and more.