Joel Smithers, a Martinsville-based doctor who prescribed half a million opioid pills in less than two years, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Abingdon on Wednesday to 40 years in prison and ordered to pay a special assessment of $86,000.
Smithers, 36, a married father of five from Greensboro, N.C., was convicted in May of 860 counts of illegally prescribing drugs, including his having caused the death of a West Virginia woman from the oxymorphone and oxycodone he prescribed. He could have been sentenced to life in prison.
Judge James Jones said at that sentencing that “this is the worst case I have ever seen. It was purely a pill mill,” said Katherine Hayek, a spokesperson for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Evidence presented at trial showed that Smithers opened an office in Martinsville in August 2015 and prescribed controlled substances to every patient in his practice, resulting in more than 500,000 pills being distributed. The drugs involved included fentanyl, oxycodone, oxymorphone and hydromorphone. A majority of the people receiving prescriptions from Smithers traveled hundreds of miles one-way to receive the drugs.
“This physician perpetuated, on a massive scale, the vicious cycle of addiction and despair,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said Wednesday in a release. “Although the sentence imposed is severe, it serves as just punishment for an individual whose actions caused the death of one person and wrecked the lives of many others. I am grateful for the hard work of our federal, state and local partners and am committed to continuing the vital work of prosecuting corrupt heath-care providers.”
Said Jesse Fong, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington Division Office: “Dr. Smithers flooded Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, 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 in our communities.”
Smithers’ office lacked basic supplies, a receptionist lived out of a back room during the work week, and patients slept outside and urinated in the parking lot, according to the DEA news release and previous Associated Press reports. At trial, a woman who described herself as an addict compared Smithers’ practice to pill mills she frequented in Florida, receiving medication without medical records or physical exams.
Patients would wait at the office for up to 12 hours to see Smithers, who regularly kept the office open past midnight. He did not accept insurance and took in more than $700,000 in cash and credit card payments in two years, according to the DEA release.
“People only went there for one reason, and that was just to get pain medication that they (could) abuse themselves or sell it for profit,” said Christopher Dziedzic, a DEA supervisory special agent who oversaw the investigation into Smithers, the Associated Press previously reported.
The city of Martinsville had the nation’s second-highest-per-capita rate for the most opioid pain pills prescribed between 2006 and 2012, based on information in a database maintained by the DEA that was made public in July. That report said 242 pills per person were distributed in Martinsville, exceeded in rate only by another Virginia city – Norton, with 306 pills per person.
During his trial, Smithers testified that after moving to Virginia, he found himself flooded with patients from other states who said many nearby pain clinics had been shut down. Smithers said he reluctantly began treating these patients, with the goal of weaning them off high doses of immediate-release drugs, The Associated Press reported. He also acknowledged that he sometimes wrote and mailed prescriptions for patients he had not examined but insisted that he had spoken to them over the phone.
When area pharmacists starting refusing to fill prescriptions written by Smithers, he directed patients to far-flung pharmacies, including two in West Virginia. Prosecutors said Smithers used some patients to distribute drugs to other patients. Four people were indicted on Kentucky on conspiracy charges, The Associated Press reported.
According to a National Institute on Drug Abuse website, “Drug overdose deaths involving prescription opioids rose from 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017. Since 2016, however, the number of deaths have remained stable.”
Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.