Native American Communities Fight Back in Opioid Crisis


Nearly every day, we hear about the opioid epidemic plaguing the United States. While pharmaceutical companies continue to support the narrative that their products are being abused, disparaged communities are calling for these corporations to be held accountable for their role in making opiates overly-accessible.

As a result, tribal nations, among others, have filed lawsuits against opiate manufacturers and their distributors resulting in the beginning of a Multi-District Litigation (MDL) in 2017.  

These lawsuits include plaintiffs from all 574 tribal nations that are suing companies like Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, and their distributors for contributing to the opioid epidemic by failing to adhere to proper regulation of drugs like oxycontin and hydrocodone.

For those who were personally affected by the opioid epidemic and the families who have lost their loved ones, seeking justice is often their top priority. In many instances, victims of this epidemic were prescribed an opiate by their doctors with their best interests in mind. Unfortunately, these incredibly addictive substances often leave patients wanting — and physically needing more.

For local governments, the concern is that overdose incidents cost taxpayers billions of dollars. In Ohio, attorneys argued that the failure of pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart to properly regulate distribution of prescriptions has cost the government nearly $1 billion in legal, law enforcement, and health services. While corporations deny these claims, the DOJ has claimed that they have “Unlawfully dispensed controlled substances,” and has therefore filed a nationwide lawsuit against Walmart, Inc.

After years of litigation, tribal nations across America have begun to see justice from these companies. In 2022, Johnson & Johnson reached a $590 million settlement for hundreds of Native American tribes while Purdue Pharma began mediation on additional settlements worth millions more.

According to the CDC, opiate-related deaths have increased over the last two decades with the most-affected living in lower-income communities. In these areas, rehabilitation centers and counseling services tend to be harder to find and even harder to afford.

The National Library of Medicine published a report in 2020 on the socioeconomic risk factors that are associated with opiate overdoses, and the results provide overwhelming support for claims that impoverished communities are at a greater risk for opiate fatalities. Unfortunately, according to the latest census data, more than a quarter of Native Americans live under the poverty line, more than twice the national poverty rate, making people in these communities vulnerable.

By holding pharmaceutical companies accountable, several tribal nations aim to change this statistic. In the Cherokee Nation, settlement funds have already been used to make a difference. A $75 million settlement was awarded to them in 2021, and it’s being used to open a new addiction treatment and behavioral health center in Northeast Oklahoma. The project is set to start later in 2023 and will help to save thousands moving forward.

In April of 2021, the Muscogee tribe started construction on a behavioral health facility of their own, which now provides a number of services including substance abuse counseling, crisis intervention, and prevention education.

When corporations are held accountable, not only can justice be served but differences can be made. The bravery and passion from victims to seek justice helps better their communities and prevents others from experiencing the same tragedies so many are forced to recover from every day.

If you or a loved one are experiencing an opioid crisis, please contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Heath Service’s National Helpline for free and confidential help at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

If you are part of a tribal community seeking reconciliation from corporations that have exploited vulnerable communities, contact the attorneys at OnderLaw. We are here to stand with you.