Drug firm prosecuted for distributing opioids illegally

A syringe containing the pain medicine, fentanyl, topped with a red capped safety needle and photographed against a white background from above.

A US-based drug distribution company and two former executives are being prosecuted for transporting medicines to pharmacies allegedly offering opioids illegally.

Rochester Drug Cooperative (RDC) is one of the 10 largest pharmaceutical distributors in the US. This case, in which two former executives are implicated, is the first case of its kind in the country.

The company’s former CEO Laurence Doud III and former chief of compliance, William Pietruszewski, have been charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled narcotics — oxycodone and fentanyl — for non-medical reasons and conspiracy to defraud the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

Earlier this week, RDC pledged to pay a US $20 million fine and entered a five-year deferred prosecution agreement to resolve charges that thousands of suspicious orders for opioids were enabled by distributors “ignoring red flags”.

Doud pleaded not guilty at a hearing in Manhattan federal court and was released on US $500,000 bail, according to Reuters. His next hearing is on May 8.

Pietruszewski separately pleaded guilty to three criminal counts and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Prosecutors said RDC identified about 8,300 potentially suspicious “orders of interest,” including for oxycodone, from 2012 to 2016, but reported only four to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

In a statement for RDC, spokesman Jeff Eller said, “We made mistakes. We accept responsibility for those mistakes.”

The opioid addiction crisis in the US has been linked with hundreds of thousands of deaths, and President Trump’s administration has declared it a national public health emergency. Last year, he called for the death penalty for drug traffickers under existing federal laws.

Use of opioid painkillers such as codeine and fentanyl has dramatically increased over the past 20 years, rising by one-third between 1998 and 2016.

Opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, played a role in a record 47,600 US overdose deaths in 2017, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis said nearly two-thirds of overdoses are linked to opioid drugs such as heroin, fentanyl and Purdue Pharma’s Oxycontin (oxycodone).