New York Times, December 17, 2017
Jan Hoffman

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[...] Across the country, tens of thousands of people are dying from abuse of prescription opioids. Here in the capital of the Cherokee Nation, the epidemic is exacting an additional, deeply painful price. The tribe’s carefully tended heritage, traditions and memories, handed down through generations, are at risk, with so many families now being ruptured by drugs.

That fear is driving an unusual legal battle. Like authorities in dozens of cities, counties and states, including Ohio, New Jersey and Oklahoma itself, Mr. Hembree has sued big opioid distributors. Attorneys general from 41 states recently joined forces to investigate similar options. But instead of going to state court, Mr. Hembree filed his case in the Cherokee Nation’s tribal court.

The Cherokee suit argues that the pharmacy chains Walmart, Walgreens and CVS Health, as well as the giant drug distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and Amerisource Bergen, flouted federal drug-monitoring laws and allowed prescription opioids to pour into the Cherokee territory at some of the highest rates in the country. Such neglect, Mr. Hembree claims, amounts to exploitation of a people.

The companies have responded by asking a federal judge to deny the tribe’s authority to bring the case. They argue that a tribe cannot sue them in tribal court, much less enforce federal drug laws. They have questioned whether a Cherokee reservation even legally exists. [...]

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