Doctor sentenced to 40 years for overprescribing opioids

A pharmacist displays oxycodone prescriptions at the University of Washington’s medical center on Jan. 25, 2012, in Seattle. A Martinsville, Va., doctor was sentenced to 40 years in prison for illegally prescribing opioids. Stuart Isett/The New York Times

A Virginia doctor who prescribed more than 500,000 doses of opioids in two years was sentenced to 40 years in prison Wednesday for leading what prosecutors called an interstate drug distribution ring.

The overprescription of painkillers is one of the roots of the nation’s opioid crisis, and patients of Dr. Joel Smithers traveled hundreds of miles from neighboring states to pick up oxymorphone, oxycodone, hydromorphone and fentanyl, according to law enforcement officials. They said he prescribed controlled substances to every patient in the Martinsville, Va., practice he opened in August 2015.

Smithers, 36, was convicted of more than 800 counts of illegally prescribing opioids, and jurors found that the drugs he prescribed caused the death of a woman from West Virginia. He faced a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

In testimony, Smithers said he was duped by some of his patients, many of whom told him pain clinics near them had already been shut down.

“I learned several lessons the hard way about trusting people that I should not have trusted,” he said.

Smithers did not accept insurance and collected $700,000 in cash and credit card payments through March 2017, prosecutors said, when federal agents raided his office.

In May, a jury found him guilty of 861 federal drug charges at the U.S. District Court in Abingdon, Virginia. Among those were one count of maintaining a place for the purpose of illegally distributing controlled substances and one count of possession with the intent to distribute controlled substances.

Martinsville, a city of about 13,000 near the North Carolina border, has one of the highest number of opioid pills received per capita. Smithers was visited by patients from West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia, law enforcement officials said.

The government estimates that 2.5 million Americans are addicted to opioids, but some experts believe that the number is between 5 million and 10 million. More than 300,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses since 2000, a government watchdog office reported this week.

In April 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration and 48 attorneys general agreed to coordinate efforts to fight opioid abuse and to share prescription drug information to aid in investigations.

Many plaintiffs are suing pharmaceutical companies and other distributors. On Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson announced a $20.4 million agreement to settle opioid claims brought by two Ohio counties. The company became the fifth drugmaker to avoid the first federal trial that tries to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the drug scourge.

New York Times

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