At the height of the opioid epidemic, Walgreens handled nearly one out of five oxycodone and hydrocodone pills shipped to pharmacies across the U.S., reports the Washington Post. Walgreens dominated the retail opioid market from 2006 through 2012, buying 13 billion pills — 3 billion more than CVS, its closest competitor, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration database. Over those years, Walgreens more than doubled its purchases of oxycodone. The company had “runaway growth” of oxycodone sales because it continued to send pills to stores “without limit or review,” said Walgreens official Edward Bratton in 2013. His email is among thousands of documents disclosed in a federal lawsuit that seeks to hold Walgreens and other businesses responsible for the opioid crisis.
While most chain and independent pharmacies relied heavily on wholesalers to supply their prescription opioids, Walgreens obtained 97 percent of its pain pills directly from drug manufacturers. This arrangement allowed Walgreens to have more control over how many pain pills it sent to its stores. Walgreens took on the responsibility of alerting DEA to suspicious orders by its own pharmacies and stopping those shipments. Instead, 2,400 cities and counties allege that Walgreens failed to report signs of diversion and incentivized pharmacists with bonuses to fill more prescriptions of highly addictive opioids. In 2012, a drug distributor produced a report for Walgreens that flagged nearly half of the chain’s 8,000 stores for dispensing high numbers of controlled substances. After warnings from the DEA, Walgreens agreed in 2013 to pay $80 million — a record settlement at the time — to resolve allegations that the company failed to report suspicious orders and negligently allowed controlled substances to be diverted for abuse and illegal black market sales. The large volume of pills flowing into Walgreens pharmacies made some stores targets for crime, including armed robberies and employee theft.