Cleveland County Courthouse
NORMAN, Okla. (Legal Newsline) – A resident of this small Oklahoma town recounted the hell of his addiction to opioid drugs that began with a legal prescription and then spiraled out of control, testifying in a lawsuit accusing Johnson & Johnson of causing a drug epidemic.
However, he also testified that he avoided Johnson & Johnson's products during his drug abuse.
John McGregor, a 34-year-old businessman and former addict, testified Friday in the closely watched trial in the Cleveland County District Court that is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
The State of Oklahoma, through private lawyers hired by Attorney General Mike Hunter on a contingency fee, sued Johnson & Johnson and its drug subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals claiming that the company’s aggressive marketing of opioid drugs as pain killers fueled an overdose epidemic Hunter called the worst in the state’s history.
Thousands of cases are still pending around the country and the Oklahoma case is being followed nationwide. It's also the first opioid trial under the "public nuisance" legal theory, attempting to hold pharmaceutical companies, distributors and pharmacies liable for the nation's addiction crisis. Critics of the nuisance claim say the state’s case is in reality a products liability case.
Two other co-defendant pharmaceutical companies, Purdue and Teva Pharmaceutical, recently settled with Oklahoma - $270 million from Purdue and $85 million from Teva. That left J&J (and Janssen) as sole defendants in the case.
In the Purdue Pharma settlement, private attorneys took in $60 million, while about $200 million went to a research project at Oklahoma State University, which is Hunter's alma mater.
Purdue officials pleaded guilty in 2007 of misleading the public about the risk of addiction from OxyContin and agreed to pay $600 million, at the time one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history.
J&J's opioid products are Nucynta and Duragesic, which dispenses opioids by the use of a timed-release patch.
On Friday, McGregor appeared as a witness for the State, telling its attorney Michael Burrage of the Whitten Burrage law firm based in Oklahoma City he had suffered a chest defect as a small boy that was corrected by surgery of the ribs. Growth problems with the ribs from the surgery later caused him pain as a teenager playing school sports.
A doctor prescribed Lortab, an opioid drug.
“This was a pill, had you taken them before?” Burrage asked.
“No sir,” McGregor responded.
McGregor said the pill took away the pain.
“I felt 100 percent like nothing had happened, I loved it,” McGregor said. “I thought it was like taking Ibuprofen (over-the-counter drug).”
McGregor said other parts of his body started to hurt even with Lortab.
“I didn’t understand what addiction was,” he said. “I thought it was like the town drunk. I wanted more pills but the doctor told me we’re done.”
McGregor said he started seeking out the pills through friends.
“I wanted them daily,” he said.
“Where were you getting them?” Burrage asked.
“Off the streets through friends and acquaintances, I was taking handfuls, then I was told to try OxyContin (opioid), I could take one pill instead of all those pills (Lortab).”
“Why didn’t you use your will power to stop?” Burrage asked.
“I tried, I couldn’t,” McGregor said. “I thought I could do anything I put my hands to.”
“Why?” Burrage asked. “Did fear of crime stop you?
“No, you realize how crazy it is, but you tell yourself it’s just short-term, don’t’ worry.”
McGregor said as the addiction took hold he began to squander his savings to get the drugs, once spending $3,000 in cash.
His behavior changed as he became more desperate for the drugs. His father asked him why he couldn’t stop.
“My own brother had to fire me from my job,” McGregor said.
Fighting back tears, McGregor, who was married with a child, described being at a birthday party for his two-year-old daughter and being glassy-eyed and nodding off.
He switched to heroin. Ultimately,McGregor spent three months in the Cleveland County Jail and entered its County Drug Court program that he said helped him learn about addiction.
“Did Drug Court save your life?” Burrage asked.
“It played a huge role.”'
“Are you clean?”
“Clean and sober for five years.”
McGregor reestablished with his family and today has a job and three children.
“I was able to get back in the house that I built,” he said.
He journeyed to Washington D.C. to speak to government officials about the success of the Cleveland County Drug Court (intervention) has become an ordained minister running a drug recovery class in the Cleveland County Jail.
He also serves as a youth pastor at a church on the east side of Norman.
Amy Fischer, the attorney defending Johnson & Johnson with the law firm of Foliart, Huff, Ottaway & Bottom of Oklahoma City, cross-examined McGregor.
“You got addicted from Lortab?” she asked.
“Yes,” McGregor said.
“This was in 2007-2008?”
“You knew it was a strong pain killer?”
“I do know now.”
“The doctor was only giving it temporarily and you were to do physical therapy?”
“Including pushups,” McGregor agreed.
“One time (prescribed pills) with no refill?”
“Correct,” McGregor said.
McGregor was asked if he had read accompanying paper instructions with the pills.
“Does anybody read them?” he asked.
“Did you try to go back to the doctor (for more pills)?” Fischer asked.
“No, you don’t want people to know, I didn’t want to be in the doctor’s office,” McGregor said.
“You knew it was not the correct way to use the drug?” Fischer asked.
“Correct,” McGregor said.
Fischer asked McGregor if he tried to get a Duragesic timed-release opioid patch to get high.
“Heavens no,” he said. “We were scared of it. With the pill you know, but the patch, that was taking it to the next level.”
McGregor said he had never tried the drug Nucynta during his ordeal.