Published December 28, 2018
AKWESASNE — The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe has filed suit in federal court against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors for the devastating effects that prescription opioids have had on the community of Akwesasne. The Tribe is seeking to hold companies responsible for the costs incurred in responding to the public health crisis attributed to the opioid epidemic.
The suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York on Tsiothóhrha/December 21, 2018, contends that the companies who manufacture, market, and distribute opioids carried out a scheme to make doctors and patients believe that prescription opioids were safe, non-addictive when taken for pain, and could be used without long-term effects. Their scheme created the worst human-caused epidemic in modern medical history and one that has ravaged tribal communities, including the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.
“The opioid epidemic is far more devastating and has had a more profound cost on our tribal community than anyone could have ever imagined,” said Tribal Chief Beverly Cook. Chief Cook noted, “An entire generation of tribal members is growing up in the shadow of the opioid epidemic, with far-reaching consequences compounded by the historical trauma that our community has endured. Children whose parents are addicted to opioids—including babies born with opioid dependencies as a result of their mothers’ opioid use during pregnancy—often must be removed from their homes.”
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe has experienced direct effects from the opioid epidemic, including the health effects on its members and their families, increased instances of child welfare and foster care cases, and crime. The tribe has undertaken various efforts to combat the epidemic, ranging from strategies to combat opioids falling into the hands of youth or those without prescriptions, and community education on opioid dangers and how to address them.
The Tribe estimates that opioid abuse and addiction have consistently accounted for around 85-90 percent of child welfare cases annually for each of the last five years. It shoulders the expense of taking custody of the children—placing them in temporary or permanent out-of-home care in the absence of a family member able to care for them.
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe has also dedicated substantial resources to confronting the opioid epidemic in other service areas in an effort to protect the wellbeing and health of its tribal members. Despite these efforts, however, the public health crisis has grown due to the continued aggressive promotion and excessive distribution of opioid products by the manufacturers and distributors.
“Opioids have reshaped the daily operation and lifeways of the Tribe in numerous ways, including increased drug-related offenses affecting the criminal justice system as a whole; additional resources spent on community and social programs; loss of workplace productivity due to opioid addiction among employees; and prevalent opioid abuse throughout the community,” stated Tribal Chief Michael Conners. Chief Conners added, “In response, the Tribe has continually allocated resources to drug-abuse prevention and education, outpatient treatment programs through Health Services, inpatient treatment at the Partridge House, social services programming, public safety and a Healing to Wellness Court, as well as participation in community coalitions aimed at reducing prescription drug abuse.”
Although the Tribe has dedicated significant resources to confronting the opioid epidemic’s damage to the community, it cannot come close to providing all the services that its members need now and will continue to need for the foreseeable future. The Tribe lacks a full-time recovery facility, leading tribal members who complete treatment for opioid addiction to return to the same environment where they were abusing opioids.
“While the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe has committed considerable resources to fight the opioid crisis, fully addressing the crisis also requires that those responsible for it pay for their conduct and abate the nuisance and harms they have inflicted on the Tribe,” stated Tribal Chief Eric Thompson. Chief Thompson noted, “The opioid epidemic is no accident. On the contrary, it is the foreseeable consequence of opioid manufacturer’s duplicitous promotion and distribution of highly addictive opioids products, while deliberately downplaying the significant risks.”
The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is represented by Keller Rohrback L.L.P. based in Seattle, Washington.