A Virginia doctor who prescribed more than 500,000 doses of opioids in two years was sentenced to 40 years in prison on 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.
Dr. 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 in prison.
Dr. Smithers flooded a region with opioid prescriptions and “hid behind his white doctor’s coat as a large-scale drug dealer,” Jesse Fong, special agent in charge of the Washington division of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement on Wednesday.
In testimony, Dr. 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.
Dr. Smithers did not accept insurance; prosecutors said he had collected $700,000 in cash and credit card payments through March 2017, when federal agents raided his office. Patients who came to the office, which was often open past midnight, would wait as long as 12 hours to see him, prosecutors said, in order to obtain pain medication they could abuse or sell for profit.
In May, a jury found him guilty of 861 federal drug charges at the United States District Court in Abingdon, Va. 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 rates of opioid pills prescribed per person in the country. Dr. Smithers was visited by patients from West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia, law enforcement officials said.
“I just hope that this sentence will set an example of what happens to doctors who abuse their authority in prescribing medications for profits,” said Eddie Cassady, the Martinsville police chief. “Their actions have contributed to the opioid crisis faced by our country.”
The government estimates that 2.5 million Americans are addicted to opioids, but some experts believe that the number is between five 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.