Virginia Doctor Sentenced to 40 Years for Illegally Prescribing Half a Million Opioid Doses in 2 Years

October 3, 2019 Updated: October 3, 2019

A Virginia doctor was this week sentenced to 40 years in federal prison for illegally prescribing about half a million doses of highly addictive opioids over a two-year period.

Joel Smithers, a 36-year-old married father of five, was sentenced by Judge James Jones in U.S. District Court in Abingdon on Oct. 2 and was ordered to pay a special assessment of $86,000.

He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life, and a fine of more than $200 million, according to officials at the U.S. Justice Department.

Smithers was arrested in 2017 at his practice in southern Virginia, and was convicted in May of more than 800 counts of illegally prescribing drugs, including the oxycodone and oxymorphone that caused the death of a West Virginia woman.

He was accused of contributing to the widespread opioid epidemic which has killed about 400,000 Americans over the last two decades.

In addition to his sentence and hefty fine, Smithers was ordered by the judge to three extra years of supervised release when he serves his sentence in federal prison, court documents showed, reported NPR.

Authorities say that, instead of running a legitimate medical practice in Martinsville, Virginia, Smithers headed an interstate drug distribution ring that contributed to the opioid abuse epidemic in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Over a period of two years, Smithers made more than $700,000 from his patients who were either vulnerable and used the drugs to “abuse themselves,” or wanted to sell the pain medication for profit, said Christopher Dziedzic, a supervisory special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration who oversaw the investigation into Smithers.

“He’s done great damage and contributed … to the overall problem in the heartland of the opioid crisis,” Dziedzic said.

According to court papers, Smithers’s practice had insufficient medical supplies, his receptionist would sleep in a back room throughout the week, and it smelled of urine just outside the building. Some patients would often sleep in the parking lot outside, court filings on the case stated.

Patients from across five states visited Smithers in his practice with some driving up to 16 hours to visit the clinic which would often stay open past midnight. Some waited an additional 12 hours upon arrival to see Smithers, according to the receptionist.

At a court hearing, one woman who referred to herself as an addict said Smithers’s clinic was like pill mills she had visited in Florida.

“I went and got medication without—I mean, without any kind of physical exam or bringing medical records, anything like that,” the woman testified.

More than 700,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses between 1999 and 2017, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those figures, 70,000 died in 2017, with 68 percent of the deaths linked to an illicit opioid or prescription.

Annual deaths linked to prescription opioids increased nearly fourfold from 2000 to 2010, the CDC found.

In an attempt to help fight the opioid crisis, the Trump administration said in September it was awarding nearly $2 billion in new funding to states and local governments.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar said the grants come from money that Trump secured from Congress last year. Trump says “nothing is more important than defeating the opioid and addiction crisis.”