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Judge Partially Lifts Veil On Drug Sale Data In Opioid Suit

[Phil Lowe / Shutterstock]
A bottle of pills spills out in front of a dark background

Updated 7:19 p.m., July 15, 2019

The federal judge presiding over nationwide opioid litigation has partially lifted an order that shielded years of drug sales data from public view.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster on Monday ordered the release of data on opioid sales from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System dated on or before Dec. 31, 2012.

Polster asked the parties in the suit to submit a modified new protective order by July 25 for more recent ARCOS data and for reports of suspicious pill orders collected by the DEA. 

“The public release of pre-2012 ARCOS data, which shows how prescription opioid pills flooded American communities, is a positive and transparent step forward,” plaintiffs attorneys Paul Hanley, Paul Ferrell and Joe Rice said in a statement released Monday. “The data provides statistical insights that help pinpoint the origins and spread of the opioid epidemic.”

Last year, the DEA had turned over data on sales across the country for the years 2006 through 2014. Local governments drew on these numbers in their complaints against drug makers and distributors. 

Until now, the suits have been filed under seal and the figures are largely blacked out in publicly available copies. Plaintiffs attorneys on Monday also requested that Polster unseal a list of complaints, including suits filed by Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and Summit County. 

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a protective order for the data in June after the Charleston Gazette-Mail and Washington Post pushed for disclosure. Polster then asked the parties in the opioid suit to recommend alternatives.

Justice Department attorneys had written that there is still good reason to retain some protections from revealing the data, and that a new protective order should be drawn up “reflecting input of all parties.” Suspicious order reports should remain confidential, they also argued in the brief.

Drug companies had argued that 6th Circuit’s opinion should be considered in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision protecting certain commercial data from public disclosure.

“At a minimum, the Court should maintain the status quo and keep the Protective Order in place until the Sixth Circuit has time to consider whether to rehear this issue and revise its opinion regarding ARCOS data in light of the Supreme Court’s decision,” drug industry attorneys wrote.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.