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Huntington mayor testifies as final witness in landmark opioid trial

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams is recalling the heartache his city has felt in recent years due to the drug epidemic.

“We’re still fighting it every day,” he said.

During an hours long testimony at the federal courthouse in Charleston Wednesday, Williams took the stand as the last witness in a landmark trial against three opioid distributors accused of fueling the crisis.

For the past several weeks, lawyers for the City of Huntington and Cabell County have tried to convince U.S. District Judge David Faber that the nation’s three largest drug distributors — AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson — should be held responsible for dumping millions of prescription painkillers to the state between 2008 and 2014. Plaintiffs said when the pain pills dried up, people turned to illicit drugs like heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Williams described his time as mayor for the last eight and a half years recounting the moment he truly became aware of the drug problem back in 2014 when he observed a SWAT team raiding a home filled with 500 grams of heroin.

“I had never seen anything like this,” Williams recalled.

In the months after that, residents would email, text and approach the mayor on the street to express fear and lack of safety in their own town. Williams testified violent crime and shootings were occurring at the same time which also raised concerns. He then realized it was more than just a law enforcement issue.

Getting teary eyed on the stand, the mayor said he started getting messages from world leaders saying the problem had bled into their territory. Using prayer as a way to cope, Williams said he met with faith based leaders and family members who lost loved ones.

The mayor also highlighted the 14 percent increase in drug overdoses since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our overdoses are on track to be more than what we had last year,” he said.

During cross examination, Steve Ruby, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia who now represents Cardinal Health, told Williams no one disputes there’s an opioid epidemic in the area, but it was not the distributor’s fault.

Ruby asked Williams if the city has sued any specific pharmacists for prescribing opioid prescriptions to which the mayor replied, “No, but my concern is how did we get here?”

Previous witnesses included Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader who described what its been like on the streets and former state health officer Dr. Rahul Gupta who called the situation “a tsunami of death and suffering.”

City and county officials are seeking around $2 billion dollars in damages from the three companies. They said the money will go toward funding programs that will help the community gain more resources to move through the epidemic.

“I’m not looking for a money grab,” Williams said. “All I am looking for the the capacity to make sure my community can heal.”

There is no jury in the case. It’s a bench trial with the testimony being considered by the federal judge.

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