Dr. Feelscared: Drug Warriors Put the Fear of Prosecution in Physicians Who Dare to Treat Pain

By Szalavitz, Maia | Reason, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Dr. Feelscared: Drug Warriors Put the Fear of Prosecution in Physicians Who Dare to Treat Pain


Szalavitz, Maia, Reason


ON FEBRUARY 1, 2002, Cecil Knox was seeing patients in his Roanoke, Virginia, clinic when more than a dozen federal agents burst through the doors with guns drawn. Helmeted, shielded, and wearing bullet-proof vests, they terrified waiting patients and employees. One worker later told the Pain Relief Network, a patient advocacy group, she thought she and her husband, who was helping her in the office that day, would be shot. She looked on in horror as an agent put a gun to his head and ordered, "Get off the phone! Now!"

Knox, a pain management specialist who had been practicing medicine in Roanoke for seven years, was dragged out in handcuffs and leg irons. The local U.S. attorney's wife, a TV reporter, was among the journalists tipped about the raid in advance. She stood outside with a gaggle of other media people to announce her husband's triumph. Knox's assets were frozen and bond set at $200,000. He and several employees soon faced a 313-count indictment, including charges of drug distribution resulting in death or serious bodily injury, prescription of drugs without a medical purpose, conspiracy, mail fraud, and health care fraud. Prosecutors said Knox had illegally distributed millions of dollars' worth of OxyContin, a timed-release version of the narcotic painkiller oxycodone.

William Hurwitz, a McLean, Virginia, internist and prominent pain specialist, received similarly heavy-handed treatment when he was arrested last fall. Hurwitz, who is Jewish, was visiting his children on Rosh Hashanah eve when federal agents descended upon his ex-wife's house in McLean and took him away in handcuffs. As with Knox, the government froze Hurwitz's assets; his bail was set at $2 million. He was charged with 49 felony counts, including drug trafficking resulting in death or serious injury, conspiracy, and running a criminal enterprise.

Like Knox, Hurwitz attracted attention largely because of his OxyContin prescriptions. Attorney General John Ashcroft said "the indictment and arrests in Virginia demonstrate our commitment to bring to justice all those who traffic in this very dangerous drug." Prosecutors said Hurwitz was "no better than a street corner crack dealer" who "dispenses misery and death." Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene Rossi had earlier declared that the reds would "root out" such doctors "like the Taliban."

Knox and Hurwitz are just two recent targets of an aggressive push by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to impose their judgments about the proper use of opioid painkillers (drugs derived from opium and synthetics that resemble them) on doctors throughout the country. In their attempt to prevent prescription drug abuse, the DEA and the DOJ in effect have taken upon themselves the authority to regulate the practice of medicine, traditionally the province of the states. Worse, they have transformed disagreements about treatment decisions into criminal prosecutions, scaring physicians away from opioids and compounding the suffering of patients who have trouble getting the drugs they need to relieve their pain.

Drug Control vs. Pain Control

Few disagree that pain is already poorly treated in the U.S. "Even the DEA admits that 30 to 50 million people are undertreated for pain," says Ronald Libby, a professor of political science at the University of North Florida who has studied the issue. A 1999 survey of 805 chronic pain patients conducted by Roper Starch for the American Pain Society and Jannsen Pharmaceutica found that roughly half of those with serious chronic pain could not find relief--and that the more severe the pain, the less likely it was to be alleviated. Other surveys have yielded similar results. Only a tiny fraction of the nation's nearly I million health care professionals licensed to prescribe controlled substances are willing to consistently use opioid medications, recognized as the best drugs for severe pain. …

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