The state of Washington has laws in place that can help stem the opioid epidemic and he will push for more in the next legislative session, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Tuesday during an hourlomng conversation with The Daily World editorial board.
Ferguson is using existing consumer protection law to sue OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in state court. “We have very strong consumer protection laws in this state and that helps us a lot in this case,” he said.
Initially, Ferguson elected to join a multi-state effort to sue Purdue, but has since decided Washington will go it alone. He said his office has “a lot of evidence” that the company deliberately misled consumers and physicians alike about the drug’s addictive nature and its effectiveness treating chronic pain.
Ferguson predicts the battle against big pharmaceutical companies will be long and hard fought. “We are girding for lengthy, protracted litigation.”
Former governor Chris Gregoire recently compared the gravity of the suit to the action she took in the 1990s as state attorney general to successfully sued the country’s major tobacco companies and won a $300 million award.
In that 1997 case, Washington was one of the lead states in a multi-state effort and outside attorneys were hired on a contingency basis. His office, at least initially, is using existing staff to sue Purdue Pharma, Ferguson said.
Ferguson is also proposing legislation he says will help physicians to avoid prescribing opioid pain relievers to “pill shoppers,” people who go to such lengths as crossing county lines to find a doctor who will prescribe the pills.
“There are 19 states that require a check before doctors can write a prescription (for opioid painkillers),” said Ferguson. “We have a system in place, but only 30 percent of doctors use it.”
The legislation is getting some pushback from physicians, who claim the system they already have in place works fine. Ferguson argues that system doesn’t provide the information needed to spot pill shoppers, and that at a minimal cost the physician system and the state’s system can work in tandem.
Ferguson is also calling for limits on the number of pills that can be subscribed to patients initially.
“For the initial prescription, put a cap on that of seven days,” he said. “For example, if you get your wisdom teeth pulled, you don’t need 30 days. After that amount of time you will start experiencing withdrawals. It’s the responsible thing to do.”
The 30-day prescription not only promotes addiction to the drug, said Ferguson, it also makes the drugs accessible to minors and others in the household. A person takes the pills as needed, then stops, but leaves the bottle in the medicine cabinet where it can be accessed by others.
“If you have legitimate chronic pain, which many people do, that’s different,” said Ferguson, ensuring his proposed legislation will not deny chronic pain victims the medications they need. He added, “We are behind on our common sense legislation. It’s a crisis and the Legislature should treat it as such.”
Ferguson reaffirmed his stance on firearms.
“We are bringing back legislation that will outlaw the sale of assault rifles and high capacity magazines,” he said. “This would limit magazine size to 10 rounds maximum.”
Understanding the tough sale any legislation limiting access to firearms will be a tough sell, Ferguson is also proposing aligning the rules for purchasing an assault rifle to those governing the purchase of a handgun.
“In this state if you want to buy an assault rifle you can walk into a (sporting goods store) and if you’re 18 you can walk right out with one,” he said. “If you want to buy a handgun, you have to be 21 and go through a waiting period before you take it home. It makes no sense.”
If the assault rifle ban isn’t approved Ferguson hopes making the rules for buying such a weapon the same as buying a handgun will get a nod from the Legislature.
“Essentially it’s a matter of public safety,” he said. He also said the legislators’ reluctance to address any gun related legislation is problematic. “I’ll say it; the politicians are just too damn scared. I say bring this legislation to a vote and let your constituents know where you stand.”
Ferguson believes the public at large favors his gun legislation.
“I’ll talk about Washington gun laws with the media and hear all the time, no, that can’t be right,” he said. “And I have no doubt where the public is on the issue.”
While not part of his proposed legislative package, Ferguson believes there will be strong bipartisan support to outlaw the sale of “bump stocks,” like the one used in the mass shooting at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas.
The Attorney General’s Office is also fighting the Trump administration on the matter of legal marijuana.
“We reached out initially to (former) Attorney General (Eric) Holder. And since we have sent multiple requests to discuss the matter with (current Attorney General Jeff) Sessions, but have had no results other than a lengthy letter from his office pointing out the flaws in our marijuana laws,” said Ferguson. “It’s frustrating.”
He said Sessions’ letter was based on outdated information.
“Since we legalized it in 2012 I’d say we’ve done a pretty good job overall,” he said. “For a first time effort I have to give the state a lot of credit for doing such a good job in a difficult situation.”
Ferguson said what the Trump administration may do next in its fight against legal marijuana is anybody’s guess.
“This administration is, unpredictable,” he said. “You can’t guess future decisions based on previous decisions.”
Any fight against legal marijuana here or in the other states that have legalized its sale would be a difficult sale, said Ferguson. “There are a growing number of states, red and blue, that are legalizing it,” he said, adding that now the money spent on recreational marijuana is benefiting the state and squeezing out the illegal dealers.
When asked about the 17 lawsuits his office has filed against the Trump administration, he said he is just doing his job as Attorney General and protecting the rights of the people of the state. He said when he sees a government not following proper procedures it is his duty to point it out and put the process back in order. Ferguson has filed suits against the administration’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, three attempted travel bans and most recently the administration’s rollback of an ObamaCare requirement that employers include birth control coverage in their health insurance plans.