Virginia doctor could get life in prison today for prescribing 500,000 opioid pills

Posted at 6:05 AM, Oct 02, 2019

A Virginia doctor convicted in May of illegally prescribing more than half a million opioid tablets will be sentenced to federal prison Wednesday.

Joel Smithers, who was convicted of 859 counts of illegally prescribing drugs, faces between 20 years and life in prison, the US Department of Justice said in a news release . He also faces a possible fine of more than $200 million.

Smithers prescribed more than 500,000 opioid tablets in 19 months before federal agents arrived at his Martinsville office in March 2017 with a search warrant, prosecutors said.

A woman from West Virginia died after Smithers prescribed her oxycodone and oxymorphone, the Justice Department said. The jury found the prescriptions caused her death.

"This defendant not only violated his Hippocratic Oath to his patients, but he perpetuated, on a massive scale, the vicious cycle of addiction, despair, and destruction," US Attorney Thomas Cullen said when Smithers was convicted.

The doctor had been prescribing Schedule II drugs -- fentanyl, hydromorphone, oxycodone, and oxymorphone -- to people who drove hundreds of miles to his office in the small town in southern Virginia.

He also was convicted on 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.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , the number of pills prescribed in Martinsville in 2016 was 399.9 per resident, one of the highest rates among cities in the United States.

Smithers, 36, wrote prescriptions for people in several states. He made $700,000 through cash and credit-card sales, prosecutors said.

The country has been grappling with an opioid epidemic in recent years. In 2017, about 1.7 million Americans suffered from substance abuse disorders that related to prescription opioid pain relievers, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse .

Opioids -- drugs that replicate the pain-reducing properties of opium -- include both legal painkillers like morphine and illegal drugs like heroin.

Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die from opioid overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse .

Overdoses accounted for more than 70,000 deaths in 2017, and 47,600 of those deaths involved opioids.