Lee County Commissioners voted this week to adopt a resolution declaring opioids a “public health nuisance” — a step toward the county joining hundreds of other municipalities across the nation in filing suit against opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors.

Monday night’s vote in Sanford passed by a 5-2 margin — commissioners Kirk Smith and Arianna Del Palazzo voting against the measure.

Before the vote, Smith laid the blame for the country’s opioid epidemic at the feet of addicts, dealers and smugglers. He suggested the commissioners instead pass a resolution for a border wall and suggested that an addict who’d been revived by the life-saving drug NARCAN seven times (citing a recent NPR news piece) had been revived “six times too many.”

Despite the opposition from the two newly elected GOP commissioners, Lee County will move ahead with the McHugh Fuller law firm on the suit that claims the overprescribing and misleading marketing of highly addictive opioids have resulted in the country’s epidemic and that pharmaceutical companies violated laws and regulations enacted to prevent these drugs from hitting the “illicit market.”

More than 70,000 Americans died of drug overdose in 2017, and North Carolina is home to four cities ranked in the Top 20 for opioid abuse. Lee County ranked second in the state for opioid overdoses in June, according to WRAL.

The legal action is designed to procure funding for increased enforcement, prevention efforts and treatment from companies alleged to have illegally promoted their products as safe and non addictive, according to attorney Ben Atwater, who is part of the litigation team representing Lee County. The legal action itself was approved in September (subscription required); Monday’s vote was more of a procedural hurdle.

Smith said he believed the opioid crisis “does not have its roots in legal pain medications,” and he questioned the county’s efforts to purse a lawsuit against the manufacturers of legal medications. He suggested litigation will lead to higher prices for legal opioids for patients who need them, and that cities and counties that join the litigation will lose out on future business deals with pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, which employs nearly 500 people at its plant in Sanford.

“What message are we sending to other industries by joining an ill-conceived lawsuit?,” Smith asked. “… If you sue the [pharmaceutical] industry out of business, you still have an opioid crisis.”

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Del Palazzo said she attended a community opioid forum held in May, and came away hearing that “the overwhelming message from all outlets were the importance of education, prevention and treatment,” and that the lawsuit “will not achieve any of those goals.”

The board’s Democrats pushed back, pointing out that the damages sought in the lawsuit would be put to use for just those purposes. Commissioner Robert Reives asked Smith and Del Palazzo what their alternatives would be.

“Continue with enforcement. Secure the border,” Smith replied, later adding “in the meantime we’re going to destroy an industry, or penalize an industry.”

Reives shot back that Smith’s stance “doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“I don’t even pay any attention to what you’re saying,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense at all. We sued tobacco companies. They didn’t go away. They found a new resource.”

Reives then moved to approve the resolution, but not before board Chair Amy Dalrymple said that she took “great offense” at Smith’s suggestion that opioid deaths are largely limited to illegal drug users.

“I don’t know if any of the other members of the board have had friends or family members that have been victims of this opioid crisis, but Commissioner Smith, I do take great offense at you alluding to fact that it’s only illegal drug users that are victims of this,” she said. “Because I know personally that’s not true.”

Dalrymple added that she knows people personally who have been victimized by pharmaceutical companies and distributors.

“They just totally went out and sold these painkillers as harmless to doctors and other medical providers for profit, pure and simple,” she said. “And they need to help counties and municipalities recoup the cost and continue to provide us money to help these people so, that they don’t need seven NARCAN doses. Which I think, if he needs 10 and it saves his life, that’s okay with me.”

At the beginning of the discussion, County Attorney Whitney Parrish said the sheriff’s office has responded to 61 overdose calls in 2018, and 418 since 2010, while the Sanford Police Department has administered NARCAN 16 times since 2017, and made 83 opioid charges in last two years.

The full exchange can be seen in the video above from the 20 minute mark to 41:07.

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