The city of Alamosa, along with Chaffee, Conejos, Las Animas, Alamosa and Otero counties, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver this week against national pharmaceutical companies - including Purdue Pharma, Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Johnson & Johnson and Cephalon, Inc.
The lawsuit claims the companies used deceptive marketing practices that caused opioid use, overdoses and deaths to skyrocket in their communities.
"We believe that these companies marketed these (opioids) as safe to take and then (residents) wound up becoming addicted," said Conejos County Attorney Nicolas Sarmiento. "We've been damaged by the undue burden that's been caused by the people addicted to these opioids."
One part of the lawsuit says the defendants' deception led to a huge increase in the number of opioid prescriptions - so many that, according to the plaintiffs, they exceeded the number of residents in the counties.
"In 2014, 17,941 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in Alamosa County, a county with a population of 16,654 residents," the lawsuit says. "This number jumped to 20,960 prescriptions in 2015."
Chaffee County, with 19,058 residents, had 25,943 opioid prescriptions dispensed in 2015. Otero County - population 18,295 - had 30,218 opioid prescriptions dispensed that year.
"We wanted to be proactive and not defer to the state to do the lawsuit," said Otero County Commissioner Keith Goodwin. "There needs to be accountability on how drugs are prescribed and we think there's been an over prescription of drugs."
The plaintiffs claim excessive opioid prescriptions have also led to an increase in emergency room visits and crimes including car thefts, domestic violence, assault, kidnapping and child abuse.
The five counties have some of the highest opioid death rates in the state. In 2016, Las Animas and Conejos counties ranked third and sixth, respectively.
"The lawsuit is one aspect of trying to address the opioid problem but we're going be involved in conversations both here locally - and I think probably nationwide - about ways in which we can come up with some sort of sustainable solution to get a handle on this thing," said Alamosa City Attorney Eric Schwiesow.
The suit comes on the heels of a similar one filed against the pharmaceutical companies by Huerfano County in January.
According to the Denver Post, the counties are seeking more than $75,000 in compensatory damages, as well as potentially millions in punitive damages.