Arkansas, Addiction Crisis. Holding Pharma Accountable, and Helping Those Addicted

Arkansas government building

Arkansas recently made national news when the state’s attorney general sued three major drug distributors for their alleged role in creating and adding to the opioid addiction epidemic. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge claimed that Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, and AmerisourceBergen failed to monitor and report highly suspicious shipments of opioids into Arkansas.

“Distributors fueled the explosion of opioids in Arkansas and enabled illegitimate avenues to flourish. Many of these companies have profited substantially from the sale and distribution of opioids within Arkansas, and they should be held accountable.”

In a direct quote from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, “Distributors fueled the explosion of opioids in Arkansas and enabled illegitimate avenues to flourish. Many of these companies have profited substantially from the sale and distribution of opioids within Arkansas, and they should be held accountable.”

The claim of the lawsuit is that these three pharma distributors allowed highly addictive opioid pharmaceuticals to be shipped in quantities far beyond any imagined need to certain pharmacies across Arkansas. The result? Arkansas became the state with the second-highest opioid prescribing rate in the nation, with enough opioids in stock to give every single man, woman, and child within the state 78 doses each. Given that medical reports of physical pain are about average in the state of Arkansas, there is no legitimate or logical reason why pharma distributors would have sent tens of millions of pills to this mostly rural state.

There is a direct link between the excessive amount of opioids sent into the state of Arkansas and the state’s growing drug problem. The Arkansas attorney general is trying to do the right thing and hold the pharma distributors accountable.

The Drug Problem in Arkansas

Arkansas map

According to Wallethub, Arkansas ranks 19th in the nation for its drug-related crisis. So it’s on the harsh side of the middle range, as so many Southeastern states are.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published information on adolescent and young adult drug-use trends in Arkansas. According to DHHS findings, drinking and driving, is more prevalent among young people in Arkansas than it is in the United States in general. The national average for young people who drove after drinking alcohol in the month preceding the DHHS survey was 6 percent. But in Arkansas the figure was almost double that, coming in at 11 percent.

The Department of Health and Human Services also reports that Arkansas youth are more likely to experiment with inhalants, cocaine, and pain relievers than the national average. This higher-than-average use of addictive substances among Arkansas youth bodes poorly for the future of the state.

One of the best places to get information on any state’s drug problem is the National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA reports that, in 2017, Arkansas providers wrote 105.4 prescriptions for opioid pain relievers for every 100 residents. That figure is almost double the national prescribing rate for opioid pharmaceuticals. But is the prevalence of physical pain more than double in Arkansas than what it is in the rest of the country? Of course not. It’s no wonder the state is suing Big Pharma.

The Arkansas Take Back program gives us statistics on the local drug problem as well. This organization seeks to reduce prescription drug abuse by offering “take back” programs in which families and households can turn in unused pharmaceuticals for safe, ethical, and confidential disposal. According to their writings, Arkansas has the 25th highest death rate from drug overdoses.

Further information from the Arkansas Take Back (ATB) program brings us back to the point of why the state is suing pharmaceutical companies. According to the ATB report, about 400 people die in Arkansas every year from overdoses—many of which involve prescription drugs. Furthermore, the ATB program collected no less than 25,000 pounds of prescription drugs in just one month. Arkansas has far more prescription drugs floating around the state than the neighboring states of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The sale of opioid pain relievers in Arkansas is 25% higher than the national average.

The drug problem in Arkansas is there. It’s not the worst drug crisis in the country, but it’s not insignificant either. The main problem is the excessive prevalence of opioid pharmaceuticals in the state and the seeming ease with which drug dealers can traffic black market batches of those drugs across the state.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Arkansas drug distributors have a well-developed distribution system for trafficking drugs to the far corners of the mostly rural state which in turn allows drug dealers to move large quantities of illicit and illicitly obtained substances across the state rapidly. According to the Intelligence Center’s article on the subject, “Private and commercial vehicles commonly are used to transport drugs into and through Arkansas. The highways in Arkansas are used to facilitate the transportation and distribution of illicit drugs. To varying extents, drugs also are transported into Arkansas via package delivery services; couriers aboard buses, passenger rail, and commercial aircraft; and cargo on freight rail and commercial shipping vessels.”

How Arkansas Families Can Help Those Addicted

Arkansas street neighborhood

Moving into the realm of potential solutions, there are three areas that the people of Arkansas should focus on in addressing their drug problem. These are:

  • Tackling the trafficking routes in the state. The ease of transportation of narcotics across Arkansas is a big part of the problem. That deserves some attention. If drug criminals are not able to move their product across the state, it will serve to considerably slow down the proliferation of drugs throughout the individual counties.
  • Reducing opioid prescribing within the state. As mentioned in the New York Times piece, one of the main reasons why the drug problem is so severe in Arkansas is because of excessive pharmaceutical opioid prescribing. If the people come together and demand better alternatives in pain relief, demanding that doctors and pharma companies stop giving them addictive drugs, this would help improve conditions in this state.
  • Arkansas families must help those who are addicted to drugs within the state. That would start with getting addicts into residential drug rehab centers. Such programs offer the best and most efficient tools and modalities for helping people overcome addiction. With this route, Arkansas can get people off of drugs and sobered up, which will, in turn, reduce the demand for drugs.
  • One crucial factor that is missing from Arkansas’s focus is to implement drug education as a key part of their efforts to tackle their drug problem. The very existence of such a considerable drug problem in this state is indicative of the fact that the state is lacking in educating their residents about the harmful effects of drugs. If Arkansans knew the dangers of drugs, it would be more difficult for drug dealers and traffickers to “sell them” on buying drugs. To the extent that Arkansas works to reduce the supply of drugs within the state, work must also be done to reduce demand through education.

Battling and winning against a drug problem in any area means helping those who are addicted, reducing the supply of drugs, and cracking down on drug crime. If Arkansas can focus on all of these fronts, the state can recover from its addiction crisis.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAC, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.