See more of the story

Lawyers for the Cherokee Nation opened a new line of attack against the pharmaceutical industry Thursday, filing a lawsuit in tribal court that accuses the nation’s six top drug distributors and pharmacies of flooding Oklahoma with hundreds of millions of highly addictive pain pills.

The suit alleges that the companies violated sovereign Cherokee laws by failing to prevent the diversion of pain pills to the black market, profiting from the growing opioid epidemic and decimating communities across the nation’s 14 counties in the state.

“Defendants turned a blind eye to the problem of opioid diversion and profited from the sale of prescription opioids to the citizens of the Cherokee Nation in quantities that far exceeded the number of prescriptions that could reasonably have been used for legitimate medical purposes,” the suit says.

By filing the suit in tribal court, lawyers for the Cherokee Nation said they hope to gain quicker access to internal corporate records that could show what the companies knew about the diversion of pain pills on Indian lands. It is the first time an Indian nation has filed suit against companies for the damage done by powerful pain pills such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

The suit names the three largest drug distributors in the United States: McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, which together control roughly 85 percent of prescription drug distribution in the country. Also named in the suit are some of the biggest names in the retail drug business: CVS, Walgreens and Wal-Mart.

The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Cherokee lawsuit comes as counties and states confront the consequences of a growing prescription opioid epidemic that has claimed nearly 180,000 lives since 2000.

Last month, seven counties in West Virginia, which has the highest prescription drug overdose rate in the nation, filed suits against many of the same corporations. Those suits accuse the companies of creating a public hazard by shipping large amounts of drugs into the state and seek billions of dollars in reimbursements for the economic toll the drugs have taken in the heart of Appalachia.

“Today, we are facing another challenge, a plague that has been set upon the Cherokee people by these corporations,” said Todd Hembree, attorney general for the Cherokees. “Their main goal is profit, and this scourge has cost lives and the Cherokee Nation millions.”