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Why You’ve Got Walgreens’ San Francisco Narrative All Wrong

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A sign.

The company is far more knowing than many would like to think. (Sachina Hobo)

It’s never a great look to hold out hope for a mega-righteous “I told you so” moment, but when it comes to corporate wrong-doing, it’s alright to make an exception. The pharmacy is paying one of the largest sums of money ever recorded from a private company to a city on behalf of a settlement reached over the opioid crisis. The lawsuit is already considered historic, and the San Francisco Chronicle writes the first $57 million of a total of $230 million owed to San Francisco is due in June 2024. If you’re amongst the San Franciscans a bit confused about this turn of events, you’re not alone.

The surprise probably comes at the heels of more than three years reading about a company allegedly beset by theft, property damage, and low retail activity. The media cyclone surrounding Walgreens was intense: it seemed like day by day new information came pouring in about closures in neighborhoods all over the city, and videos of thieves making off like bandits with armfuls of snacks circulated the internet like TikTok dance sensations. So why is San Francisco receiving the largest-ever settlement from a private company instead of the city wringing its hands once again, apologizing for its unwell citizens nabbing soda?

That’s because federal judge Charles Breyer just found that between 2006 and 2020 the company handed out more than 100 million prescription opioid pills without the necessary due diligence to make sure those pills were being used in legal, safe ways. “They were more concerned with profit than following their legal obligations,” Chiu told the Chronicle. “They did not give their pharmacists time to conduct due diligence — pressuring their pharmacists to fill, fill, fill.”

Sound familiar? It should. Americans should be well and familiar with pharmaceutical companies pushing their prescriptions on unwitting, mental health-addled citizens. Of course, Walgreens denies wrongdoing — hence the settlement. There are other strikes against the company, too, including a $4.5 million California wage theft settlement. But the company also owes West Virginia $83 million in a similar settlement. And Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin says he knows what he wants to spend that money on. “We need feet on the street,” Peskin told the paper, pointing toward more emergency responders. 

So while it can be easy to get lost in the public relations-funded Walgreens narrative, this court decision should do something to upset that fable. This is a company happy to put security guards on the front lines of a drug epidemic with no pepper spray or baton, leading to terrible and tragic results. This is a company closing locations country-wide but happy to shift the blame on “organized retail crime,” though even the San Francisco Police Department’s data can’t support that fabrication. In fact, this is a company who hired former Walmart and Starbucks executive Rosalind Brewer to lead Walgreens into digital retail expansion. The company closed so many locations before this pivot, alongside competitor CVS, after an opening spree which left Walgreens on wobbly financial ground running into COVID. So far, seems like Brewer’s classic, tried-and-true corporate playbook worked out. If not for those pesky laws Walgreens was breaking, she might’ve gotten away with it, too.

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Paolo Bicchieri

Paolo Bicchieri

Paolo Bicchieri (he/they) is a writer living on the coast. He's a reporter for Eater SF and the author of three books of fiction and one book of poetry.