The DEA's War on Pain Doctors

In Arizona, Dr. Jeri Hassman, who runs Tucson's biggest pain practice, was indicted in March after a sting involving two undercover agents and a three-time-convicted felon. She is being threatened with a 28-year prison term because some of her patients abused prescriptions she wrote.

It's not just on the federal level that harsh punishment is being meted out. Dr. Robert Weitzel from Utah was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He gave morphine to a 91-year-old patient, who soon after died of heart disease. Weitzel won a retrial (and acquittal) in November 2002 after it was learned that a local prosecutor had concealed exculpatory evidence. In Florida in the same year, Dr. James Graves was not so lucky, becoming the first U.S. physician to be convicted of manslaughter related to an OxyContin prescription, after local authorities charged that four of his patients fatally overdosed on OxyContin, some of them after combining it with illegal street drugs. Graves contended that his patients would not have died if they had taken the drugs as directed. He is currently serving 63 years.

illustration: Viktor Koen

Federal officials claim that nearly 500 people died from overdosing on OxyContin in 2002, but a recent article in The Journal of Analytical Toxicology could find only 12 cases in which OxyContin was the sole cause of death; all the others fell victim to poly-drug abuse—mixing OxyContin with cocaine, alcohol, Valium, or various other substances.

"Opioids when taken under clinical supervision are not that dangerous," says the American Pain Institute's Myers. "The data tells us that only 3 percent of people who take opioids become addicts. The latest research conclusively shows that the best medicines for the treatment of chronic pain are narcotics. They have less side effects and more benefits than any other type of drug."

More dangerous, contends Myers, are the everyday drugs that pain sufferers turn to when they can't get narcotics. He talks about something called "suicide by Tylenol": "When chronic pain patients can't get opioids, they go out and use tremendous amounts of drugs like Tylenol and Motrin, which can cause serious liver and kidney damage. Pain patients are dying from kidney and liver disease because of this."

Many pain patients are also dying by their own hand, according to the Pain Relief Network's Reynolds. "All over America, pain patients are committing suicide because of the DEA's campaign," she claims. "I know of at least 17 recent cases in Arkansas alone. It's really astonishing the amount of human carnage that this campaign has already caused."

Fumes Myers: "What's going on here is morally reprehensible and medically incomprehensible and it has to stop. Doctors who treat pain patients are not criminals."

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