Virginia Doctor Gets 40 Years for Prescribing Half a Million Opioid Pills

Convicted of 860 individual federal drug charges at trial

OxyContin / Getty Images

A Martinsville, Va., doctor has been convicted of more than 860 federal drug charges after distributing half a million opioid pills in fewer than two years.

Dr. Joel Smithers, 36, was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison for acts that, in the words of the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, "perpetuated, on a massive scale, the vicious cycle of addiction and despair." In addition, Smithers was convicted of having caused the death of a West Virginia woman who overdosed on oxycodone and oxymorphone he prescribed.

"Dr. Smithers flooded Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio with his opioid prescriptions and hid behind his white doctor’s coat as a large-scale drug dealer," said Jesse Fong, DEA special agent in charge of the Washington Division Office. "The Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tactical Diversion Squads will relentlessly investigate and arrest these drug dealers disguised as doctors in our communities."

According to the Department of Justice, Smithers first opened his practice in Martinsville in 2015. In the following several years, he prescribed "controlled substances" to every patient, including oxymorphone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and fentanyl. Patients would come from hundreds of miles away to receive drugs from Smithers's "pill mill."

During its operation, Smithers's office lacked basic medical supplies, had a receptionist living out of its back room during the work week, and had patients who slept outside and urinated in the parking lot. One patient, who testified at trial, said that Smithers provided her with pills without any physical exam or medical records. Smithers did not accept insurance, but took in more than $700,000 in cash and credit card payments over the course of two years.

"People only went there for one reason, and that was just to get pain medication that they could abuse themselves or sell it for profit," a DEA agent said.

Smithers's practice was at the epicenter of America's drug crisis, serving as the point of origin for pills throughout the Appalachian region. Similar operations, many based out of Florida, are widely blamed for helping drive up prescription opioid deaths. They remain a problem: In August, DOJ busted a 23-million pill drug ring operating out of pharmacies in Texas.