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On October 2, a federal judge in Abingdon, Virginia sentenced former doctor Joel Smithers to serve forty years in prison and pay a special assessment of $86,000 for opioid-related crimes. In May, a jury convicted Smithers of 859 counts of writing illegal prescriptions for Schedule II controlled substances. The jury also convicted him of one count of maintaining a place for the purpose of illegally distributing controlled substances and another count of possessing controlled substances with intent to distribute. Additionally, the jury held him responsible for causing the fatal overdose of a woman in West Virginia by prescribing her oxycodone and oxymorphone, two powerful and addictive opioids.
The combination of Smithers’ convictions carries a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years behind bars and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. According to Thomas Cullen, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, Smithers “perpetuated, on a massive scale, the vicious cycle of addiction, despair, and destruction.” Federal prosecutors and DEA officials claim that Smithers was instrumental in fueling the ongoing opioid epidemic in the Appalachian region of the United States.
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In 2015, then-Dr. Smithers opened a medical practice in Martinsville, a small town on Virginia’s border with North Carolina with a population of only about 13,000 people. As narcotics investigators would eventually discover, Dr. Smithers’ practice was not legitimate. He prescribed opioid painkillers to all of his patients. More specifically, he prescribed them oxymorphone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and fentanyl. The federal government classifies all four of these opioids as Schedule II controlled substances because they pose high risks for abuse, addiction, and overdose.
Smithers earned $700,000 from selling these drugs to his customers, many of whom drove hundreds of miles from West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and other parts of Virginia to come to his office for a guaranteed opioid restock. His patients always paid him with cash or a credit card, never through their health insurance.
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The opioid epidemic is partially the result of doctors overprescribing opioids. For Smithers, overprescription was a business strategy. Unsurprisingly, Martinsville had one of the country’s highest rates of opioids prescribed per person in 2016, with 399.9 opioids for every Martinsville resident. In early 2017, the police raided Smithers’ office and placed him under arrest.
Dr. Smithers flooded Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio with his opioid prescriptions and hid behind his white doctor’s coat as a large scale drug dealer. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tactical Diversion Squads will relentlessly investigate and arrest these drug dealers disguised as doctors.”
At his trial, Smithers accepted what he did, but he claimed that his patients had deceived him. “I learned several lessons the hard way about trusting people that I should not have trusted,” he explained, referring to his own customers. Smithers attempted to convince the court that he did not intentionally abuse his position as a licensed doctor to profit from an addiction crisis. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly helped flood the country with dangerous medications that continue to kill over 100 Americans every day.
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