Pala Tribe of Mission Indians Sue Opioid Manufacturers

The suit was filed on Nov. 26 in hopes of holding the pharmaceutical companies “accountable for the devastating effects prescription opioids have had on the tribe.”

People are dying of opioid overdoses in communities across the country, but the outlook is even worse for young people living on Native Reservations.

New data showed Native Americans are up to three times more likely to use the potentially deadly narcotics.

Nearly eight out of every 100,000 people die from an opioid overdose in San Diego County, according to the State of California Department of Public Health.

That's double the state's average.

San Diego County's Native tribes have been hit the hardest.

"In early 2016, the opioid crisis hit our reservation very hard," said Robert Smith, Tribal Chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians. "And a lot of young people lost their lives."

Smith said during that year, 10 local tribe members died from overdosing on opioids - a staggering number considering only 1,300 tribe members live on the reservation.

“It’s hard, it’s devastating, it’s like losing one of your own family members,” Smith told NBC 7. “Very close to home. I have relatives myself that passed away.”

But Pala isn’t the only reservation feeling those impacts.

One out of 10 Native Americans have taken opioids without a prescription, according to the California Department of Public Health.

That's high considering that one out of every 20 Caucasians admitted to using these drugs, and one out of every 30 African Americans use prescription pills.

Smith said one of the problems is how easy it is to get the pills.

"People are selling them on the street for $4 to $8 a pill," said Smith. “Nowadays, you don't know what they are cutting it with or what they are making it with. You could be buying something and it could be something else."

The Pala Tribal Council decided to do something about it. Hundreds of other tribes across the nation have recently filed a lawsuit against some of the largest pharmaceutical companies, claiming those companies did not fully disclose how addictive opioids are.

The lawsuit accused companies who manufacture, market and distribute opioids of carrying out “a scheme to make doctors and patients believe that prescription opioids were safe, non-addictive, and could be used without long-term effects. That effort, coupled with their failure to track orders and distribution of the drugs as required by law, shows the companies created an illicit market for highly addictive drugs that have ravaged tribal communities.”

Smith told NBC 7, “They are making a lot of money off of it, so I just think big pharma should be held accountable."

Smith hopes the lawsuit will help raise awareness for his community and for Native Americans everywhere.

"It's not going to bring anyone back, but maybe it will help bring some preventative measures to stop this bad addiction for our Native American people," he said.

NBC 7 reached out to Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Oxycontin and Oxycodone, who are named in the lawsuit. They did not respond to our request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed in late November. So far, the companies in the lawsuit have not responded.

Taking too many opioids can stop a person's breathing, as it tends to sedate and induce sleep, according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This can lead to the person's death.

Prolonged use of opioids can build up a tolerance to the drug, resulting in needing a higher dosage to feel the same pain relief. This can also create a dependence, meaning often-times painful withdrawals occur if a person tries to stop taking them, the CDC said. These side effects can create an addictive behavior.

Contact Us