(The Washington Post) Morris & Dickson, one of the nation’s largest drug distributors, was sued Thursday over claims that it fed a devastating addiction crisis within the Cherokee Nation by not stopping the suspicious shipment of millions of painkillers to a small number of Oklahoma pharmacies.

The negligence lawsuit was filed by the tribe in Oklahoma state court nearly two weeks after the Drug Enforcement Administration, in a separate matter, announced that it would revoke the company’s ability to distribute controlled substances unless Morris & Dickson can reach a settlement agreement with the agency. The company is fighting that move in federal court, saying the revocation would force the company to close after 180 years in business.

The lawsuit filed by the Cherokee Nation alleges that the company did not flag and report outsize orders of pain pills that were probably diverted to the illicit market. The result was a public health crisis that has led to hundreds of overdose deaths and strained the tribe’s health and welfare system, the suit said. In a statement, Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. called the company’s sales “illegal and careless.” 

“With this lawsuit, the Cherokee Nation intends to send a clear message that any company or group that threatens the health and welfare of our citizens will be held to account,” Hoskin said.

Thursday’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of the entire 400,000-citizen tribe to recoup the money that it spent on care related to the opioid crisis.

A family-owned company with headquarters in Louisiana, Morris & Dickson is the nation’s fourth-largest wholesale drug distributor, although not as well-known as other distribution companies that helped flood the United States with opioid pain pills, fueling an addiction and overdose crisis that still grips the nation.

The company declined to address the lawsuit but said in a statement that it “takes seriously its commitment to ensure strict compliance with all regulations.”

Distributors are required to notify the DEA and hold back drugs if suspicious orders are discovered, a key indication that they are being diverted to the black market. Allegations that Morris & Dickson failed to do that have been well-documented.

In 2018, the DEA briefly suspended the company’s ability to sell opioids after an investigation revealed that it did not detect suspiciously large orders for oxycodone and hydrocodone placed by independent pharmacies in Louisiana.

The following year, an administrative judge recommended the DEA strip the company of its license. But the DEA did not move to revoke the license until late May, shortly after the Associated Press published an investigation into the unusually long delay.

The DEA, in a 62-page order filed May 26 revoking the company’s license, acknowledged that the case took “longer than typical” but said Morris & Dickson had sought a delay in the proceedings because of the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to reach a settlement. The revocation won’t be final for 90 days, so the company has time to reach a potential negotiated settlement.

Morris & Dickson is asking a federal appeals court to put the revocation on hold, saying the legal procedure was unconstitutional. A decision is pending.

In its order, the DEA said Morris & Dickson maintained an inadequate system to monitor suspicious orders. During administrative testimony, the company’s president at the time, Paul Dickson Sr., said he did not think “a single person has gotten hurt” by their drugs. The order said Dickson’s comments were so off-base that they undercut the agency’s ability “to entrust the [company] with a registration.” The company, in a statement, said it had invested millions to overhaul its compliance systems.

Another twist: Morris & Dickson hired former DEA official Louis J. Milione as a consultant to help contest the DEA allegations. He returned to the DEA in 2021, and the agency says he has stepped away from issues related to Morris & Dickson. Some federal agencies have been criticized for not moving swiftly enough to stop companies that flooded the nation with prescription opioids, which have since been displaced by fentanyl as the catalyst for overdose deaths.

The lawsuit filed Thursday offers details about Morris & Dickson’s suspected role in the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, where more than 5,200 people died of drug overdoses from 2014 to 2020, according to federal data cited in the complaint.

The Cherokee negligence suit alleges that between 2010 and 2014, Morris & Dickson shipped more than 3.7 million pills to just five pharmacies in Oklahoma counties populated by Cherokee tribal members.

One pharmacy was in the small town of Roland, Okla. It has a population of less than 3,500 but received a staggering 774,370 pills in 2013 and 2014, the lawsuit said. Another pharmacy in the same town received 1.5 million pills between 2010 and 2014. According to the suit, the pharmacies were tied to a clinic that doled out prescriptions to patients traveling from 10 other states.

Indian communities across the United States have been ravaged by the opioid crisis and have sued drugmakers and distributors, as have U.S. states and cities. The Cherokee nation, based in Tahlequah, Okla., announced in 2021 that it had reached a $75 million settlement with the three biggest drug distributors: McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Drug. Suits with CVS, Walgreens and Walmart have also been settled.