In April 2017, the Cherokee Nation sued CVS Health, Walgreens, Walmart and several drug distributors in tribal court for neglectfully allowing prescription opioids to flood their reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. Earlier this year, however, a district judge shot down the case, citing a lack of Cherokee jurisdiction outside of tribal matters. Now, the Nation has filed another lawsuit, this time at the state court level.

On Feb. 21, the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at the Yale Law School hosted a panel about the effect of opioids on the Native American community, featuring the Deputy Attorney General for Cherokee Nation Chrissi Ross Nimmo, New York Times journalist Jan Hoffman ’91 and law professor Judith Resnik.

“This talk is part of a yearlong focus on the opioid crisis led by the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School,” said Abbe Gluck, the panel’s moderator and a professor of law, in an email to the News. “The opioid crisis has ravaged Native American communities, but those communities have not received as much attention as others.”

Roughly 85 undergraduates, law students and medical students attended the talk, which took place at the Law School. Nimmo, Hoffman and Resnik all gave short introductory statements, after which Gluck moderated a discussion.

Arka Gupta ’20 said he was particularly excited about the topic; in June of 2017, Gupta co-founded Dose of Justice, an organization that works to combat the stigma surrounding the opioid epidemic.

“We need to keep big pharmaceutical companies accountable and address supply chain issues for the opioid epidemic,” Gupta said. “I think that Native American populations have been especially affected by the opioid epidemic, and I hope to see more attention being paid to address some of their health care issues.”

Much of the publicity surrounding the Cherokee Nation’s lawsuit is due to the work of Hoffman, the Times reporter. On the panel, she discussed her time on the Cherokee Reservation in Oklahoma, telling stories about the 60-bed hospital that serves as the center for tribal health care.

In one of Hoffman’s visits to the maternity ward at the Cherokee Nation’s W.W. Hastings Hospital, she found a mother sobbing after she learned that her baby tested positive for opiates. The baby had been taken into custody.

“The Cherokee are so proud of who they are and where they come from,” Hoffman said. “For a people so invested in continuity, placing children with non-Cherokee families is devastating.”

According to her reporting, 70 percent of Cherokee foster children are placed in non-Cherokee families.

Following Hoffman, Nimmo, the deputy attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, spoke about the lawsuit in more detail. She began by listing facts about the Cherokee Nation’s health care system.

According to Nimmo, the Nation’s health care system — the largest such tribal system in the country — serves the Nation’s more than 365,000 enrolled citizens. Although these days an increasing number of emergency room and patient visits are linked to opioid abuse and addiction, Nimmo said, the opioids are not coming from the doctors.

“Tribal health facilities are not putting drugs on the street — they don’t prescribe them,” she said.

Instead, they suspected the opioids came from the other major local pharmaceutical centers — including CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, which, according to Hoffman’s reporting, sold the drugs legally.

Following in the footsteps of several hundred other opioid-based lawsuits, Nimmo decided to help the Cherokee Nation achieve justice and retribution.

Addressing the problem in a court of law, however, introduced the question of jurisdiction, something Resnik acknowledged was difficult to resolve.

“There are 572 recognized bodies called Indian tribes that have some form of sovereign authority. What do we do now? Where do you want this? Do you want multiple lawsuits?” she asked.

Indeed, a district court judge ruled against the Cherokee Nation on account of the question of jurisdiction.

Following the ruling, Nimmo and her counsel decided to pursue the lawsuit in the state court. The Cherokee Nation lawyers wanted a trial — and not to spend months arguing about jurisdiction, Nimmo said.

The moderator, Gluck, asked Nimmo what the Nation wants from a lawsuit.

“We want money, but we don’t want money just to have money,” Nimmo said. “We want a behavior change, and the way to remediate the problem is to treat those who are addicted and treat children who have been harmed.”

Vikram Shaw | vikram.shaw@yale.edu