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Messenger: The truth about $572 million opioid verdict? It's nowhere near enough.

Messenger: The truth about $572 million opioid verdict? It's nowhere near enough.

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The roughly 2,000 state and local governments suing the drug industry over the deadly opioid crisis have yet to see any verdicts or reach any big national settlements but are already tussling with each other over how to divide any money they collect. The reason: Some of them want to avoid what happened 20 years ago, when states agreed to a giant settlement with the tobacco industry and used most of the cash on projects that had little to do with smoking's toll.

Twice in recent months I’ve met families whose sons ended up in Oklahoma jails because of drug addiction.

One couple lives in Chesterfield, the other in the Central West End. They’re business owners, people of means. Their sons started down the road to addiction in high school. Opioids. Heroin. The depths of despair. They tried rehab. They tried everything.

Eventually the boys stole to support their habit and ended up in jail in Oklahoma.

I was reminded of them this week by two events.

First, the state of Oklahoma obtained a $572 million verdict against drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson for its role in creating the national opioid crisis.

Seen one way, it’s a massive verdict and the first, in what is amounting to thousands of similar lawsuits around the country against the purveyors of opioids, the pain drugs that were distributed and prescribed like candy over the past couple of decades.

Then John Grady emailed me and asked me to look at the verdict through a different lens.

“It’s a paltry slap on the wrist,” Grady said. At less than 1% of the massive conglomerate’s overall profits from the opioid trade in the past decade, according to Grady’s research, the verdict is a pittance compared to what the victims of the opioid crisis have gone through. Oklahoma officials had sought $17 billion in the lawsuit.

Grady and his wife, Kara, live in Wentzville. They’re both veterans. They operate a retreat for veterans in Hermann, Missouri. Grady was nearly addicted to opioids himself and has seen how the drug can ruin the lives of other veterans.

In 2018, Grady pointed out, the median income in the U.S. was just over $61,000. A comparable fine for such an American would be around $288 according to his math.

“Some speeding tickets carry a heftier fine,” Grady said.

In fact, fines and fees in the court system in Oklahoma are a massive problem, and might even be worse than in Missouri. The connection to the opioid crisis isn’t incidental. Drug addicts often interact with the criminal justice system, but all too often in some states, that system works to drive them into deeper poverty.

In March, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., filed a class-action lawsuit against several judges in Oklahoma, claiming that the civil rights of residents of that state are violated regularly because of the unconstitutional application of fines and fees. A key element of the lawsuit alleges that many judge in Oklahoma fail to hold “ability-to-pay” hearings when assessing costs.

The lawsuit talks about one plaintiff who was jailed for two years at 16, and now, at 23, owes more than $5,000 in fees and fines, significantly more than what she should have owed for her original offense.

In Oklahoma and Missouri and other states struggling with opioids and heroin, the legal problems of many defendants begin with addiction.

One of the couples I met from St. Louis has a son who is in a halfway house in Oklahoma following a long jail sentence. The son owes more than $15,000 in various court fines and fees.

He’s buried in debt and as a felon will struggle to find work to pay it off.

And he’ll likely never see a dime of the $572 million from Johnson & Johnson.

“They haven’t stopped making opiates,” Grady says. “After the ruling, their share price rose by 5.4%, effectively negating the fine from Oklahoma. After all, for their part in killing over 3,000 people with FDA-approved medication, it looks like Johnson & Johnson is set to have another record-breaking year of profits. Justice isn’t blind. Justice is a bought-and-paid-for commodity in America.”

Meanwhile, thousands of veterans are still addicted to pain medications.

The streets of American cities, including St. Louis, are packed with addicts who started their addiction journey with opioids and now are homeless and desperate, feeling like they have no way out.

Dozens of cities and counties in Missouri have signed on to a lawsuit filed last year in St. Louis by attorney Jack Garvey that seeks to hold opioid manufacturers and distributors, including Mallinckrodt and Express Scripts, responsible for the increased costs — and deaths — that overselling of the drugs have caused throughout the state.

The counties — Jefferson, Cape Girardeau, Christian, Crawford, Greene, Iron, Jasper, Stone, Taney and Washington counties — are some of the same ones that for years have put Missourians in jail for their inability to pay the bills that come from their previous stays in jail. As of Thursday, that scheme is no longer legal in Missouri.

But Grady makes me wonder.

When the next big verdict comes, perhaps in Missouri, will the actual victims of the opioid crisis see a penny? Or will they be victims again, still struggling in poverty, and with addiction, while the governments addicted to green get yet another windfall? First they took money from poor defendants who could hardly afford to pay. Now they’re taking a pittance from the corporations who most definitely can.

So, yes, it’s good that the drug companies are paying for their sins.

Just don’t call it justice, because so far, it’s not even close.

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