On the heels of a lawsuit filed Jan. 17 by Philadelphia city officials against 10 pharmaceutical companies claiming that misleading marketing methods have fueled the city's opioid crisis, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced Thursday that he had filed his own lawsuit against the companies Feb. 2.
"The city of Philadelphia has been hurt more than any other city in the nation by the scourge of opioids," Krasner said. "The time for us to act was yesterday, and it is now."
Meanwhile, at a news conference at the same time just a few blocks away, district attorneys from around the state who are partnering with the U.S. Attorney's Office in a regional Opioid Law Enforcement Task Force suggested they would continue to go after street-level dealers, stressing they have as much to fear from law enforcement as drug traffickers and pill-mill doctors.
Krasner also is participating in the task force, officials there said, but he had a scheduling conflict — his own news conference announcing the Big Pharma lawsuit. When asked why the suit was being announced almost two weeks after it was filed, Krasner spokesman Ben Waxman responded: "Iggles!" The DA's Office wanted to wait "until people were paying attention," he said, so the news conference was scheduled for after the Eagles' Super Bowl victory and parade.
Krasner praised the city's earlier actions against pharmaceutical companies and said his suit complements them. But he said his predecessors should have taken action: "There was not quite as much interest in going after people who wear white collars as there was in going after people who wear T-shirts when it came to drug enforcement," he said.
"Make no mistake, it isn't just going to be the kids on the corner," he said. "It's going to be Big Pharma, it's going to be doctors, it's going to be pain centers, it's going to be pharmacies, and to the extent we have an opportunity, it's going to be distributors who think that money is more important than lives."
At the other news conference, acting U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen said the Justice Department had ordered him and his counterparts across the country to form regional task forces combating the opioid epidemic, and spoke of seeking mandatory minimum sentences against drug traffickers who cause someone's death, cracking down on pill mills, and sharing intelligence on drug operations among police departments around the region.
"How do we tame the rough beast that is the opioid epidemic?" asked Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan. He stressed the importance of getting people in addiction into treatment and diversion programs. But he also held up a pair of handcuffs and, addressing drug dealers, intoned: "These are for you."
During his campaign, Krasner emphasized diversion programs for nonviolent drug offenders and advocated "using discretion to avoid unduly harsh sentences," decrying Attorney General Jeff Sessions' praise for mandatory minimum sentencing, which fell out of favor during the Obama years. He's also supported safe injection sites, which Lappen called "safe suicide sites" at Thursday's news conference.
Earlier this week, Krasner dropped charges in more than 50 marijuana possession cases. He said that about 90 percent of such cases already end in citations rather than arrest, but that his office will drop charges in the 10 percent that do result in arrest. He said studies have shown that opioid overdose deaths have decreased in states that have legalized marijuana.
"There's a direct relation between reducing opioids and opiate deaths and making marijuana available," he said.
It's unclear how those approaches will dovetail with those of other district attorneys on the regional task force, or the federal government, which, under Sessions, have rescinded Obama-era guidance against prosecuting states that legalized marijuana. Waxman, Krasner's spokesman, declined to comment, saying the DA's Office hadn't had time to review everything from the other news conference.
Krasner called the opioid crisis "an obscene situation that must be adjusted," attributing it "almost entirely to a rapacious pharmaceutical industry."
"We have three to four Philadelphians dying every single day from fatal drug overdoses, probably 80 percent of them from opioid-related deaths," he said. He said the suit, a public-enforcement action filed under the state's consumer protection law, was as thick as a phone book.