Doctor faces life in prison for taking in $700k illegally prescribing opioids: prosecutors

A 36-year-old doctor could get life in prison on Wednesday after he took in roughly $700,000 by illegally prescribing opioids and contributing to an epidemic of abuse that reached far beyond his practice in the small town of Martinsville, Virginia.

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Dr. Joel Smithers, a 36-year-old married father of five who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, was convicted in May of more than 800 counts of illegally prescribing drugs, including the oxycodone and oxymorphone that caused the death of a West Virginia woman. When he is sentenced Wednesday, the best Smithers can hope for is a mandatory minimum of 20 years.

Patients from five states drove hundreds of miles to see him, spending up to 16 hours on the road to get prescriptions for oxycodone and other powerful painkillers.

Authorities say that, instead of running a legitimate medical practice, Smithers headed an interstate drug distribution ring that contributed to the opioid abuse epidemic in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia.

In court filings and at trial, they described an office that lacked basic medical supplies, a receptionist who lived out of a back room during the work week, and patients who slept outside and urinated in the parking lot.

At trial, one woman who described herself as an addict compared Smithers' practice to pill mills she frequented in Florida.

"I went and got medication without — I mean, without any kind of physical exam or bringing medical records, anything like that," the woman testified.

A receptionist testified that patients would wait up to 12 hours to see Smithers, who sometimes kept his office open past midnight. Smithers did not accept insurance and took in close to $700,000 in cash and credit card payments over two years.

At his trial, Smithers portrayed himself as a caring doctor who was deceived by some patients.

"I learned several lessons the hard way about trusting people that I should not have trusted," he said.

A city of about 14,000 near Virginia's southern border, Martinsville once was a thriving furniture and textile manufacturing center that billed itself as the "Sweatshirt Capital of the World." But when factories began closing in the 1990s, thousands of jobs were lost. Between 2006 and 2012, the city had the nation's third-highest number of opioid pills received per capita, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal data.

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The opioid crisis has affected communities across the U.S. for years, and earlier in September, President Donald Trump announced $1.8 billion in grants to help states and local governments fight the U.S. opioid epidemic. The money was approved and appropriated by Congress last year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.