Reason Roundup

Walgreens 'Helped Fuel' Opioid Crisis in San Francisco, Says Judge

Plus: Americans want to vote on abortion, why the housing crisis has gone national, and more...


Is Walgreens an illicit drug dealer? That's essentially what a federal court has ruled, suggesting the pharmacy should have stopped "suspicious orders" for opioids from being filled. In failing to do so, the retailer "substantially contributed" to the opioid epidemic in San Francisco, Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled.

Walgreens was "responsible for shipping nearly 1 out of every 5 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills distributed nationwide during the height of the opioid crisis," reports The Washington Post. And "more than 100 million prescription opioid pills were dispensed by Walgreens in [San Francisco] between 2006 and 2020," notes the Los Angeles Times.

Walgreens isn't accused of filling fake prescriptions; the opioid orders it filled were written by licensed doctors. But some of these doctors had "suspect prescribing patterns," noted Breyer. And other orders were written by doctors who would go on to have their licenses revoked or face criminal punishment. The judge agreed with the city and county of San Francisco, which brought the suit, that Walgreens pharmacists were negligent in not realizing something was afoot and therefore illegally contributed to a public nuisance. A trial will be held to determine damages owed.

"The effects of the opioid epidemic on San Francisco have been catastrophic. The city has fought hard and continues to do so, but the opioid epidemic, which Walgreens helped fuel, continues to substantially interfere with public rights in San Francisco," Breyer wrote.

This seems, frankly, insane. Walgreens fills prescriptions. It is not in the business of drug enforcement. If some of the prescriptions filled by Walgreens were written by dirty doctors or went to people who abused them, it is not on individual pharmacists to figure that out.

Expecting pharmacists to be drug cops, too, ensures that more pharmacies will be hesitant to fill legitimate prescriptions, leaving patients in the lurch. It also threatens to worsen America's pharmacist shortage.

In a number of recent cases, pharmacies and pharmacists have been sued for not filling prescriptions. including opioid prescriptions. It seems we've put them in a classic damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.

This isn't the first time Walgreens has been found guilty of opioid crimes. Last fall, a federal court in Ohio found CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart guilty of ignoring "red flags" about opioid prescriptions and thereby contributing to a "public nuisance."

In 2013, Walgreens had to pay $80 million in civil penalties after the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said it was negligent in filling narcotic prescriptions.

Under the Controlled Substances Act, pharmacies are required to have systems in place to monitor for suspicious orders. And Walgreens did. But the DEA—and now Breyer—say Walgreens' policies weren't sufficient.

The case showcases yet another bananas aspect of America's war on drugs.

To sum it up: Walgreens filled prescriptions for a legal substance, but because some people went on to distribute or use the drugs in ways the government has forbidden, the company has to pay the government huge sums of money. Meanwhile, the inability of people to get prescription painkillers has given way to reliance on much more dangerous substances, like fentanyl, from which many more people are dying of overdoses. People keep taking opioids, and the government keeps making it harder for them to do so safely.

"These cases, along with thousands of other lawsuits by state and local governments that blame legal drug suppliers for opioid-related addiction and deaths, ask courts to focus on one link in a long causal chain," noted Reason's Jacob Sullum last November. "That chain includes decisions by state and federal regulators as well as actions by manufacturers, distributors, doctors, pharmacists, patients, black-market dealers who sell diverted pills, and nonmedical users who consume them."

"We never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the 'pill mills' and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis," said Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman in a statement yesterday. "The plaintiff's attempt to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public nuisance law is misguided and unsustainable. We look forward to the opportunity to address these issues on appeal."


People want to vote on abortion laws (and keep it legal). A majority of Americans surveyed think the question of whether abortion should be legal in each state should be left up to the voters of that state. A USA Today/Ipsos Poll suggests that 70 percent of people support the idea of putting abortion laws up for a vote and more than half would vote to keep it legal. From USA Today:

Seven in 10 say they would support using a ballot measure to decide abortion rights in their state, an idea backed across party lines, by 73% of Democrats, 77% of Republicans and 67% of independents. Democrats are the most energized on the issue; 43% say they "strongly support" putting abortion on the ballot.

If there were a ballot measure in their state, those polled would vote by 54%-28% in favor of making abortion legal. Democrats support legal abortion in their state by 7-1 (76%-10%) and independents by 2-1 (52%-27%). Among Republicans, 34% would support abortion rights and 54% would oppose them, a worrisome fissure for the party that has long been identified with the anti-abortion movement.

At particular risk for the GOP are two groups of swing voters. Suburbanites by 56%-26% say they would vote to support abortion rights in a ballot measure. And women by 60%-25% would support an abortion rights initiative, significantly more than the backing among men of 47%-32%.

Read more poll results here.


Why the housing crisis has gone national:

We walked into the coronavirus pandemic with a national housing crisis already brewing. According to a recent report by Up for Growth, a group advocating for solutions to the national housing shortage, the United States was short 3.79 million homes in 2019, a 130 percent increase over 2012. Researchers estimate that 169 metro areas—from Boston to San Diego—weren't building nearly enough housing to keep up with demand, up from 100 metro areas in 2012.

At the start of the pandemic, many eagerly predicted that the "death of the city" would help solve this. A shift to remote work, the story went, would cause a wave of migration out of high-cost cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast—long suffering from self-imposed housing shortages—and into low-cost cities in the South and the Mountain West. This would benefit everyone, easing pressure on housing prices in the former regions while spurring economic growth in the latter.

It didn't quite work out that way.

Now, housing prices in big cities are higher than ever and housing prices in small places are also up. More on why (and how to fix it) here.


More information has come out about the FBI's raid on former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence. Newsweek reports that the raid "was based largely on information from an FBI confidential human source, one who was able to identify what classified documents former President Trump was still hiding and even the location of those documents." Newsweek says its report comes from two senior government officials "who have direct knowledge of the FBI's deliberations and were granted anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters."

Shockingly, the FBI thought this matter could be kept low-profile, per Newsweek:

FBI decision-makers in Washington and Miami thought that denying the former president a photo opportunity or a platform from which to grandstand (or to attempt to thwart the raid) would lower the profile of the event, says one of the sources, a senior Justice Department official who is a 30-year veteran of the FBI.

The effort to keep the raid low-key failed: instead, it prompted a furious response from GOP leaders and Trump supporters. "What a spectacular backfire," says the Justice official.

"I know that there is much speculation out there that this is political persecution, but it is really the best and the worst of the bureaucracy in action," the official says. "They wanted to punctuate the fact that this was a routine law enforcement action, stripped of any political overtones, and yet [they] got exactly the opposite."


• Montana's Supreme Court has upheld a lower court decision temporarily stopping three state laws on abortion—including a 20-week ban—from taking effect.

• Washington Republican "Rep. (Cathy) McMorris Rodgers, who once actually was decent on tech, before apparently realizing that her constituents don't like elected officials from reality," has teamed up with satire site The Babylon Bee to write a ridiculous, anti–free speech article in the New York Post, notes Mike Masnick of Techdirt.

• "Two Indiana officers were suspended after a stunning courtroom revelation that police thought a potential town council candidate was anti-police and arrested him, stopping him from running for office," reports The Washington Post.

• How a LinkedIn post fueled a sex work debate.

• More on the Justice Department's potential upcoming antitrust suit against Google.