In the comments from Sunday morning’s post, commenter Roger Rabbit posted a link to another tragic drug war story that I haven’t covered here. It comes out of Kansas, where in late 2007 a pain doctor named Stephen Schneider and his wife Linda (a nurse) were rung up on a 34-count indictment related to prescribing more pain medication than the DEA allows. As Harvey Silverglate explains, this is an all-too-common occurrence:
When pain doctors administer too much of a controlled substance, or do so knowing that they will be diverted to narcotic addicts, they are deemed no longer engaged in the legitimate practice of medicine. But the dividing line is far from clear and not subject to universal agreement even within the profession. Any patient in need of relief can, over time, develop a chemical dependence on a lawful drug–much like a diabetic becomes dependent on insulin. And, once a treatment regimen begins, many patients’ tolerance to the drug increases. Thus, to produce the same analgesic effect, doctors sometimes need to increase the prescribed amount, and that amount varies from person to person.
It is notoriously difficult even for trained physicians to distinguish an addict’s abuse from a patient’s dependence. Nonetheless, federal narcotics officers have increasingly terrorized physicians, wielding the criminal law and harsh prison terms to punish perceived violators. Since 2003, over 400 doctors have been criminally prosecuted by the federal government, according to the DEA. One result is that chronic pain patients in this country are routinely under-medicated.
One notorious case along these lines was the prosecution of Richard Paey, a wheelchair-bound attorney in Florida who was originally given a 25-year prison sentence for forging prescriptions (he was pardoned by Governor Crist in 2007). Prosecutors tried to paint him as a drug dealer, but could never prove that he sold any of the drugs he obtained. Ironically, in prison, he was finally given the amount of pain medication he’d been trying to obtain for himself all that time.
Another person affected by this crusade against pain doctors is Siobhan Reynolds, whose husband died after spending years trying to find a doctor willing to treat his pain. Reynolds founded the Pain Relief Network in 2003. She’s been heavily involved in trying to raise awareness of the prosecution of Dr. Schneider, and because of that she found herself a target of the Kansas prosecutors as well. Silverglate writes:
When Reynolds wrote op-eds in local newspapers and granted interviews to other media outlets, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway attempted to impose a gag order on her public advocacy. The district judge correctly denied this extraordinary request.
Undeterred, Treadway filed on March 27 a subpoena demanding a broad range of documents and records, obviously hoping to deter the peripatetic pain relief advocate, or even target her for a criminal trial of her own. Just what was Reynolds’ suspected criminal activity?
“Obstruction of justice” is the subpoena’s listed offense being investigated, but some of the requested records could, in no possible way, prove such a crime. The prosecutor has demanded copies of an ominous-sounding “movie,” which, in reality, is a PRN-produced documentary showing the plight of pain physicians. Also requested were records relating to a billboard Reynolds paid to have erected over a busy Wichita highway. It read: “Dr. Schneider never killed anyone.” Suddenly, a rather ordinary exercise in free speech and political activism became evidence of an obstruction of justice.
Last Friday, after Silverglate’s editorial was printed, the judge in the case fined Reynolds for refusing to turn over the documents. She plans to appeal the ruling.
A few weeks back, I posted about my skepticism of what’s been happening with the investigation of Michael Jackson’s death and the attempts to charge his doctor with manslaughter. Cases like the one in Kansas are what formed my initial reaction to that news. The circumstances of the Michael Jackson case are quite different and bizarrely unique, but they also boil down to a prosecutor deciding that a doctor has done something so improper that it’s not only bad medical practice, but is actually a criminal act. And as this case out of Kansas has shown, it’s often the prosecutors who are a greater threat to the general public.