And One More Drug War Tragedy

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.

Comments

  1. 1

    X'ad spews:

    Well, it’s Kansaas. There is no reasoning or rationally dealing with nutcases. It’s a terrible dilemna for somebody like a physician to have to deal with wackos who are out of touch with reality or, in this case probably, a prosecuting attorney trying to score points.

  2. 2

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    In case you’re wondering why Treadway still has a job 8 months into the Obama administration, the answer may lie partly in the president’s slowness to fill appointive positions.

    The Kansas U.S. Attorney’s Office has been effectively leaderless since last year, when Bush’s appointee resigned to accept a federal judgeship. The office has been run by temps: Marietta Parker, acting U.S. Attorney until May, and Lanny Welch, interim U.S. Attorney since then, are long-time staff attorneys in that office. Treadway is their colleague, and they won’t do anything about her.

    But part the reason could also be White House sensitivity about trying to set policies for federal prosecutors in the wake of the Rove scandal. U.S. Attorneys serve at the President’s pleasure, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys serve at the U.S. Attorney’s pleasure, so the chain of command is short and direct. But, as we saw when Bush fired 9 U.S. Attorneys for purely political reasons, there are practical and philosophical barriers to giving marching orders to U.S. Attorneys and their assistants. It’s a safe bet that even if Obama or his aides are aware of Treadway’s antics, they’ve decided on a hands-off course of action. This should be, and apparently is being, left to the next regularly appointed U.S. Attorney to deal with.

    If there ever is one.

  3. 3

    spews:

    @2
    In case you’re wondering why Treadway still has a job 8 months into the Obama administration, the answer may lie partly in the president’s slowness to fill appointive positions.

    Most likely. We’ve seen a lot of damage done by some Bush holdovers (there was another good article recently about how the chief scientist at the Drug Czar’s office is a Bush holdover who is burrowing and being a shit disturber).

  4. 4

    Politically Incorrect spews:

    How is the DEA different from an organized crime ring? It’s time that agency was abolished.

  5. 5

    SeattleJew's Sockpuppet spews:

    How is a physician who misuses her license to prescribe drugs less of a criminal than a police officer who uses her weapon inappropriately or a priest who uses his authority in the wrong way?

    The problem with drugs is not limited to those having recreational uses. Overuse of antibiotics imperils us all and many people have been harmed by misuse of hormones. Docs can and have also misused other tools .. esp those of the plastic surgeon. Is misuse of a powerful drug more benign than misuse of a scalpel?

    I think Lee’s cncern about DEA zealotry is misplaced. Sure, using the DEA to enforce laws against something as harmless as MJ is dumb, but as far as I read there is no over-zealous effort at control by the DEA of pain killers and opiates. The number of folks using truly dangerous drugs in a recreational fashion is a worry.