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Documenting Justice

UCSF Shines a Light on the Nation’s Opioid Crisis, Part 1

by Colleen Haikes

UCSF Shana Simmons Summit Session Audience

If you haven’t registered yet for Everlaw Summit ’23 (Oct. 10-12) in San Francisco, here’s a good reason why you should: you’ll get an inspiring, in-depth look into how professionals around the world are using Everlaw to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. Like Rachel Taketa’s keynote presentation at Summit ‘22, showing how archivists are using publically available litigation data to understand some of the biggest crises facing our society today.  It’s entitled “Seeking Truth and Healing in our Nation's Deadly Opioid Crisis.” 

During this 45-minute fireside chat, Everlaw’s Chief Legal Officer Shana Simmons spoke with Rachel, Processing and Reference Archivist at the University of California San Francisco’s Industry Documents Library. Shana and Rachel dove deep into the important work UCSF is doing by making millions of documents related to landmark opioid litigation available to the public. This two-part blog is an edited version of Shana and Rachel’s conversation, an example of the work being done through our Everlaw for Good program. 

Shana Simmons: Before we begin, I'm going to set the stage by reading some staggering facts.

More than 841,000 people have died from opioid overdoses since 1999, setting off one of the worst US public health crises. The White House Council of Economic Advisors estimates the opioid epidemic cost more than $2.5 trillion dollars between 2015 and 2018. 

Over 1.6 million people had an opioid disorder in 2019. And fewer than one out of ten people in the US who need help with addiction get care for it. 

Rachel, why do you think we are facing this epidemic today?

Rachel Taketa: The cause is multi-faceted. One of the reasons why I collect documents from opioid litigation is to shine a light on the practices of opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies. I think their practices are one of the main factors that drove the opioid epidemic.

We have the same goals as traditional archives, but want to facilitate access by anybody, anywhere, anytime.

What I'm finding through these documents is that the opioid epidemic came about through aggressive marketing—marketing that lacks oversight, not listening to safeguards around over-prescription and over-prescribing pills. And just misleading marketing—misleading notions about addiction and whether some opioids were less addictive or not, and marketing based on that. 

UCSF Shana Simmons Summit Session Stage
Everlaw's Shana Simmons (left) discusses the work of the UCSF archives with Processing and Reference Archivist, Rachel Takata (right).

The UCSF industry archive has been around since 2002. We house tobacco industry documents and we have been doing this for a couple of decades now. But our opioid industry documents archive started last year, really. It's a completely online archive, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In it we put all the digitized documents that are coming out of opioid litigation right now––internal company documents as well as depositions, court transcripts, anything we can get our hands on to give context. Anybody can access the archive; there's no barrier.

Shana: I'm so impressed with how digestible the archive is and easily accessible it is as a consumer. But for those in the audience who may not have looked at the archive, what would they see?

Rachel: There’s a big search box, but ultimately we try to provide context with research tools. Once you start searching on keywords, or people, or anything, you come up with documents or videos that can be streamed. The archive is a treasure trove of internal documents that have come out of litigation, as well as from donors such as journalists who give us their documents after completing their investigations. We take everything.

It's a very large collection, about six million documents. You’ll see corporate emails and presentations, marketing materials, regulatory materials, letters, memos and lots of text messages––an entire snapshot of an organization and how it operated.

Shana: You just used the words ‘treasure trove.’ These settlements required that the documents produced during legal discovery be made public. This was something new; why do you think the plaintiffs wanted these documents public, rather than seeking some other traditional forms of relief?

Rachel: This hasn't been the norm, this document disclosure. But I think we have tobacco litigation to thank for getting it. The tobacco litigation in the 90s was the first real large settlement that had a built-in transparency clause; for 20 years the tobacco industry has had to produce documents given over during discovery. 

I believe we’ve seen the value of the tobacco documents that have been released for 20 years, especially in California, where the landscape around tobacco control has changed so much. It's rare to see people smoke on the street these days. Smoking is no longer normalized due in part to the policy changes effected by the researchers who use this archive. 

The archive is a treasure trove of internal documents that have come out of litigation... an entire snapshot of an organization and how it operated.

Shana: You’ve talked a little about your experience with tobacco documents. But let's talk about the day your job got a lot harder––the day your archive received the largest acquisition to date, which expanded the collection of opioid industry documents more than 100-fold.

What happened? What did that mean for you and your staff?

Rachel: During the pandemic we began working with Johns Hopkins University to collect documents being publicly released from opioid litigation. We got a call from plaintiffs’ attorneys who had negotiated document disclosure and they told us they would send maybe five million opioid documents, possibly more, at once.

Shana: At one time?

Rachel: Yes, at one time! Five million documents, and we needed to bring them online within a year or two. That was daunting but I didn’t say “no.”

Our team just had to hit the ground running, really, and I knew we would figure it out on the fly.

When the universe speaks, I try to listen. When this was all going on, I kept hearing about Everlaw.

We are grant-funded and at that time were a four-person team: me, two developers and my supervising archivist––just three of us putting documents in. We huddled quickly and decided to move forward with Johns Hopkins because we wanted these documents.

Shana: You hit the ground running. How did the process go?

Rachel: Some of these documents came to us redacted and some did not. If you want to make all these documents public, you have to redact them. Traditional archives don't have to deal with this, they have a reading room. Everything is very siloed in the reading room, which is not open to the public. We have the same goals as traditional archives, but want to facilitate access by anybody, anywhere, anytime, and preserve these documents for the long haul. 

From that first tranche, we were charged with redacting around six million documents, not five million. Three people cannot redact six million documents. We had to figure out how we could do this with partners or with an outside organization. 

When the universe speaks, I try to listen. When this was all going on, I kept hearing about Everlaw. And then, funny enough, I remembered that almost a decade ago, Everlaw had given my team a presentation. I still had my account; I’d kept it all these years and had played around with the Everlaw platform somewhat.

And then a light bulb went off in my head. I knew I needed to use Everlaw to help me, even though not exactly in the way the platform is intended to be used. I realized the Everlaw platform might help me assess millions of documents and get a handle on redaction. I had no idea how to use Everlaw in that way, but I knew it could be the answer I was looking so hard for.

Visit the Everlaw blog in the coming weeks to find out how Rachel and the team at UCSF Industry Document Archives accomplished the super-human task of redacting and archiving millions of documents under tight deadlines. In the meantime, make plans to join us in October; register for Everlaw Summit ’23 today