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West Virginia’s renewed fight against opioid abuse

As we enter a new year full of opportunity, I also embark upon my third term as your attorney general and do so with renewed commitment to fight against opioid abuse with more intensity than ever.

Our office has had remarkable success over the past eight years, but we know now is not the time to sit back and take it easy.

I pledge to continue our relentless fight against opioid abuse and senseless death.

The public deserves nothing less.

The West Virginia Attorney General’s Office had no substance abuse fighting unit when I arrived in January 2013. Since then, our administration has had a double-digit number of employees focused on fighting this terrible scourge that has plagued our state for far too long.

Our mission is to mount a holistic approach to attack the root causes of substance abuse from a supply, demand and educational perspective.

This includes holding accountable all actors who have played a role in this public health crisis — even government agencies.

Nationally, West Virginia remains a trailblazer in fighting opioid abuse, as exemplified by our recent leadership of a broad, bipartisan coalition of 48 attorneys general in urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to provide data on how the agency has used its new authority to combat opioid abuse.

Specifically, we are seeking a progress report regarding recent steps taken by the FDA to combat the opioid crisis, given the new authorities Congress granted the agency in 2018. Those provisions, within the SUPPORT Act of 2018, include safer opioid packaging and disposal features, development of new, non-addictive alternatives to opioids and guidelines for opioid prescribing.

As the chief legal officers of our respective states, our group of attorneys general believes the FDA plays a critical role in ensuring both the safety and efficacy of opioids and encouraging non-addictive, non-opioid alternatives for treating pain.

This isn’t the first time our office has taken the lead.

Many of these same states and territories supported a West Virginia-led effort in 2017 asking health insurance companies to review and revise their payment and coverage policies to prioritize non-opioid pain management options for treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain.

This past year, our office opened a new front on enforcement and, separately, released findings of our years-long investigation into the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s irresponsible approach to drug quotas.

This shocking report revealed never-before-seen documents showing that the DEA routinely accepted sales projections and unsupported claims of increased demand from drugmakers, yet failed to question how many pills fell into the hands of abusers as overdose deaths skyrocketed from 2010 to 2016.

In 2020, we also stood against opioid abuse by filing suit against four national chain distributors, alleging each knowingly distributed more opioid pills to its pharmacies than was medically necessary.

The year before that, we filed lawsuits against five major drug manufacturers.

Since January 2016, our office has secured more than $84 million in settlements with 13 opioid distributors — all combined, the largest pharmaceutical settlements of any kind in state history.

As COVID-19 wanes after an unprecedented year, we also look forward to resuming our broad prevention efforts. Through these initiatives, we hope to prevent future addiction by educating students, athletes, local leaders, faith-based groups and the community at large as to the dangers of opioid painkillers and the advantages to non-opioid alternatives.

We want to remain as aggressive and effective as any attorney general’s office in the nation in combating the opioid epidemic.

We must now build upon that foundation and achieve even more.

We must — and will — continue the fight into 2021 and beyond with hopes to eradicate senseless death and help West Virginia reach her full potential.

(Patrick Morrisey is the attorney general of West Virginia.)

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