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Price to Pay

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges relating to opioid distribution against one of the United States' 10 largest pharmaceutical distributors and two of its executives, both of whom could be sentenced to life in prison.

statement released by the Department of Justice (DOJ) alongside the charges depicts the company as a last resort for independent pharmacies that saw their contracts terminated by other distributors. Some of the pharmacies raised red flags for such activities as dispensing drugs to out-of-state patients or accepting a large percentage of cash payments.

The charges mark the first time that executives near the top of the drug supply chain will face more than lawsuits and fines for their role in America's opioid crisis — and they could signal an era of increased accountability for the pharmaceutical industry.

The Charges

According to the DOJ statement, drug distributor Rochester Drug Co-Operative (RDC) has been charged with "conspiracy to violate the narcotics laws, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and willfully failing to file suspicious order reports."

The company's former CEO, Laurence F. Doud III, and its former chief compliance officer, William Pietruszewski, were each charged with unlawfully distributing the drugs oxycodone and fentanyl, as well as conspiring to defraud the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

Pietruszewski pleaded guilty to the charges on April 19, while Doud entered a plea of not guilty on Tuesday. Each faces a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence.

"Today's charges should send shock waves throughout the pharmaceutical industry," DEA Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan said in a statement, "reminding them of their role as gatekeepers of prescription medication."

Profits Over People

Given that opioid overdoses now kill more than 130 people in the U.S. every day, it's hard to read the details of the DOJ's investigation into RDC and not feel sickened.

RDC's willingness to sell to pharmacies others wouldn't allowed the company to increase sales of its oxycodone tablets by roughly 800 percent between 2012 to 2016, while its fentanyl sales skyrocketed by 2,000 percent, according to the DOJ statement.

Over the same period, RDC's internal compliance office flagged 8,300 drug orders. The number it actually reported to the DEA: four.

"This country is in the midst of a prescription drug abuse epidemic,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said at a news conference, according to Reuters. "This epidemic has been driven by greed. As alleged, Doud cared more about profits than the laws intended to protect human life."

READ MORE: Indictment: Ex-CEO ignored red flags as opioid crisis raged [Associated Press]

More on the opioid epidemic: New App Detects Early Signs of an Opioid Overdose 

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