A southwest Virginia doctor accused of contributing to the widespread opioid epidemic is facing life behind bars for prescribing nearly half a million doses of highly addictive drugs over the course of two years.
Joel Smithers, a 36-year-old father of five, was found guilty in May of more than 800 counts of illegally prescribing drugs, including the oxycodone and oxymorphone that resulted in the death of a woman in West Virginia.
Authorities said Smithers operated a drug distribution ring out of his Martinsville-based practice beginning in 2017. His office lacked basic medical supplies and included a back room, where his receptionist would sleep throughout the work week, according to court filings in the case. The outside of the facility also smelled of urine and patients would regularly sleep outside in the parking lot.
“I went and got medication without — I mean without any kind of physical exam or bringing medical records or anything like that,” a woman, who is a self-described drug addict, testified earlier this year.
Some patients would drive up to 16 hours to visit Smithers only to wait another 12 hours upon arriving, according to the receptionist, who also said he would keep his offices open well past midnight.
“People only went there for one reason, and that was to get pain medication that they (could) abuse themselves or sell for profit,” said Christopher Dziedzic, a supervisory special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, who also oversaw the investigation into the doctor.
Over the course of two years, authorities said Smithers accepted nearly $700,000 in cash and credit card payments.
Dziedizic added that the doctor has contributed to “the overall problem in the heartland of the opioid crisis," including in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia.
Opioids in the last 20 years have killed nearly 400,000 Americans and have left many communities — particularly in the Appalachia region — struggling to provide certain services amid the boon in drug usage, including foster care, rehabilitation programs and social services.
Between 2000 and 2010, the annual deaths linked to prescription deaths skyrocketed, increasing nearly fourfold. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, that figure only began to decrease for the first time just last year.
With News Wire Services