The opioid epidemic in this country couldn’t have happened without the doctors. Now, I am not saying all doctors are bad, I am just stating a fact. I am not imputing motivation, but I suspect money had something to do with the fact that some doctors found a good business model in pain relief. And, I am sure some doctors thought they were doing a good thing to prescribe opioids to their patients who were suffering from tremendous pain — after all, the pharmaceutical companies marketed the opioids as wonder drugs with negligible risk of addiction.
But about ten years ago, the consequences of all these legal opioid prescriptions became tragically evident. This country is now struggling with an opioid crisis and overdose deaths are rising at rapid rates every year.
What about those doctors who prescribe opioids at to patients that overdose and die? Is the doctor the proximate cause of a person’s death? While there have been numerous instances of doctors across the county convicted for overprescribing opioids, none were charged with murder until 2015. In that year, a California doctor was convicted of second-degree murder for the deaths of three of her patients—one from Orange County—for whom she had prescribed opioids and other dangerous drugs, even though as the prosecution successfully established, she knew of the dangers. Despite one of her patients overdosing in her clinic and numerous phone calls from authorities warning her that some of her patients had died with drugs in their system, she continued to dole out dangerous prescriptions. Although she was only charged with the three deaths, there were at least five other patients in her care who died from overdoses. The California doctor was the first in the country to be charged and convicted of murder for the reckless prescription of opioid drugs. The doctor’s sentence: 30 years to life.
Recently, an Oklahoma doctor was charged with second-degree murder after the death of at least five of her patients who overdosed on the opioid drugs she prescribed. As the California doctor learned, second-degree murder charges are a big deal. Under Oklahoma law, it was alleged that the doctor committed an act (excessive prescribing) that was dangerous to another person and with blatant disregard for her acts. Second degree murder is primarily distinguishable from first degree murder in that there is no imputed premeditation or plan to kill. The distinction is the same in California.
Pennsylvania amended its statute in 2011 to include the crime of “drug delivery resulting in death.” The crime is prosecuted like third-degree murder. In California, we do not have a crime of third-degree murder, but the elements of Pennsylvania’s law are similar to California’s manslaughter laws. At least two Pennsylvania doctors have been convicted under this statute and the sentences were stiff. One doctor received a 30-year sentence and the other go 7 ½ to 15 years.
The stories behind these patient deaths are tragic illustrations of the opioid crisis that grips this country. To blame the addicts is a failure to understand what addiction does to a person’s brain. Everyone understands that the pharmaceutical companies were the instigators of this crisis and a certain percentage of doctors acted as (and may continue to act as) the pharmaceutical companies’ handmaidens. It is about time that we stop blaming the addict and start punishing those who are the responsible party.
Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available to consult with you regarding any criminal or DUI matter. Contact him for a free consultation (949) 474-8008 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.