A federal court in the Eastern District of North Carolina entered a consent judgment and injunction requiring a North Carolina pharmacy, Seashore Drugs Inc., its owner, John D. Waggett, and its pharmacist-in-charge, Billy W. King II, to pay $1,050,000.00 in civil penalties and to cease dispensing opioids or other controlled substances, the Department of Justice announced.
The consent order resolves a complaint filed by the United States alleging that Seashore Drugs, Waggett, and King repeatedly filled prescriptions for opioids and other controlled substances in violation of the Controlled Substances Act. The United States alleged that, for years, defendants ignored well-known “red flags” of drug diversion and drug-seeking behavior when filling prescriptions for controlled substances. These prescriptions often involved well-known, highly addictive, and highly abused painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone, along with other “potentiator” drugs — drugs that heighten the euphoric effects of opioids, like carisoprodol (i.e., Soma) and alprazolam (i.e., Xanax).
“The Department of Justice continues to use all tools at its disposal to combat the opioid crisis,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “Reports indicate that COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the opioid crisis’s underlying causes. As a result, the Civil Division, DEA, and other law enforcement partners have redoubled efforts to ensure that pharmacies that fail to uphold their obligation to dispense controlled substances lawfully are held accountable.”
“Opioid addiction and abuse have devastated communities across our nation, and eastern North Carolina is no exception,” said Robert J. Higdon, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. “As the last line of defense between these dangerously addictive substances and our communities, pharmacists and pharmacies play a critical role in stemming the tide of the opioid epidemic. Seashore, Waggett, and King ignored that responsibility and, instead, made matters worse. Today’s order demonstrates our office’s continued, unwavering commitment to hold responsible all who had a role to play in this crisis — from distributors, to prescribers, to the pharmacies who ultimately put the pills in patients’ hands.”
“These pharmacists abandoned their code of ethics,” said Robert J. Murphy, Special Agent in Charge of the DEA. “If diversion of controlled substances is suspected, pharmacists must investigate and resolve any red flags before filling a prescription. These steps are necessary to comply with the law and to protect patient health. We will not hesitate to use all federal resources necessary to ensure that members of the health care industry follow the law.”
As alleged in the complaint, which included several patient examples, many prescriptions raised multiple red flags, but Seashore Drugs, Waggett, and King failed to take the required steps to resolve those red flags and ensure the prescriptions’ legitimacy before filling them. The red flags allegedly ignored by Seashore Drugs, Waggett, and King were numerous and included, among others:
- Combinations of controlled substances that were highly unlikely to serve a legitimate medical purpose and/or were known “cocktails” favored by drug abusers, including numerous “cocktails” written by a physician whose prescribing privileges ultimately were suspended by the North Carolina Medical Board for improper opioid prescribing;
- Extremely high doses of opioids dispensed for years on end, including high-dose opioid prescriptions written by a prescriber located in another state hundreds of miles away and written for members of the same family; and
- Repeated early fills of prescriptions allowing individuals, over time, to receive many extra doses of opioids and other controlled substances.
As set forth in the complaint, this conduct led Seashore to develop a reputation in the local pharmacy community as a place that filled prescriptions other pharmacies refused. And within the pharmacy, it is alleged that King often filled prescriptions for customers his own pharmacists, no longer on shift, previously refused to fill. Seashore staff even reported to King that individuals were exchanging recently dispensed drugs on the bench outside the pharmacy, but King took no action. Multiple customers who filled opioid prescriptions at Seashore died from prescription-drug overdoses within days after Seashore dispensed their pills.
The defendants have not admitted the allegations in the complaint, but the parties agreed to resolve the case without further litigation. The court adopted the parties’ agreement and entered a consent order that, among other things:
- Permanently prohibits Waggett from dispensing opioids or other controlled substances;
- Prohibits King from dispensing Schedule II controlled substances, including most opioids, for 180 days and then requires King to submit to further DEA monitoring for 3 years; and
- Permanently prohibits Waggett and King from serving as a manager, owner, operator, or pharmacist-in-charge of any entity, including a pharmacy, that administers, dispenses, or distributes controlled substances.
Trial Attorney James W. Harlow of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch and Assistant U.S. Attorneys C. Michael Anderson and John E. Harris of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina represented the United States. The Greensboro Resident Office of the Drug Enforcement Administration investigated the case. Additional investigatory assistance was provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General and the North Carolina Board of Pharmacy.
For more information about the Consumer Protection Branch and its enforcement efforts, visit its website at http://www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch.