On Wednesday, Virginia doctor Joel Smithers was sentenced to 40 years for his part in the opioid crisis. Smithers was found guilty by a jury in May of more than 800 federal drug charges. Prosecutors said Smithers operated a “pill mill” out of Martinsville, Virginia, between 2015-2017. In that time, Smithers reportedly prescribed “more than half a million doses of oxycodone, hydromorphone, fentanyl and other opioids to patients for years.” Smithers was also handed an $86,000 fine along with the prison sentence.
The 36-year-old Smithers was facing a possible life sentence and more than $200 million in fines, so in some senses, this was a light sentence for the opioid drug dealer. Prosecutors successfully argued that Smithers’
business practice, opened in August of 2015 and closed in March of 2017 after federal agents raided his offices and charges were brought against him, had illegally prescribed opioids to people from all over the region—including Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee. The jury also convicted Smithers on two charges holding him responsible for at least one West Virginia woman’s death. What was Smithers’ incentive? Prosecutors explained that Smithers’ business model included taking at least “$700,000 in cash and credit card payments through March 2017.”
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.
The numbers bear witness to this abuse of power. Martinsville, Virginia, a city of 13,000 people, had an average opioid prescription size of “almost 4,090 morphine milligram equivalents per person.” That’s almost ten times the national average.
The lack of legislative movement by our federal government and municipalities has brought more focus onto adjudicating our country’s addiction and opioid health issues in court. Smithers’ conviction and sentence will likely weigh heavily on other doctors and former doctors, some of whom are facing their own trials for similar unscrupulous behavior.
OxyContin creators the Sackler family, and their pharmaceutical company Purdue, are in the process of trying to settle a massive set of cases against them, for billions of dollars. The federal government conservatively estimates that the opioid crisis in America has cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars over the past decade. The cost to lives and families is something no one can put a number on.