Florida Doctor Convicted of Manslaughter in OxyContin Overdose Case
Dr. James Graves was found guilty of manslaughter by a Florida circuit court jury yesterday for prescribing the "powerful painkiller" OxyContin to four patients who died from an overdose of the drug, the AP/St. Petersburg Times reports. The 55-year-old Florida physician is the nation's first doctor to be convicted of manslaughter or murder in an OxyContin overdose death of a patient. Graves faces up to 30 years in prison on four counts of manslaughter, one count of racketeering and five counts of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance. Graves' lawyer said he will appeal the "disappointing" verdict, while prosecutors said they would seek a "lengthy prison term" because of the "large number of people affected" by Graves' actions (AP/St. Petersburg Times, 2/20). OxyContin, when used properly, is a time-released synthetic opiate thought to be "less prone to misuse than other narcotics." However, abusers "learned they could defeat the pill's [time-release] safeguard" by crushing or chewing OxyContin pills (Meier, New York Times, 2/20). By injecting or swallowing the drug, abusers can obtain a "heroin-like high," according to drug abuse experts (Dahlburg, AP/Los Angeles Times, 2/20). In addition to OxyContin, pharmacists testified that Graves also overprescribed the painkiller Lortab, the tranquilizer Xanax and the muscle relaxant Soma.
During the trial, prosecutor Russell Edgar said that Graves, who was "Florida's top prescriber" of OxyContin, "in effect put people in a chemical straitjacket. It was to his financial benefit to do so and ... also it served his ego." Edgar estimated Graves made $500,000 per year from his pain management practice, adding, "He's no different than a drug dealer." Graves told the jury he was unaware his patients were abusing his prescriptions and said "no one would have died" if the drugs had been taken as prescribed. Graves' lawyer, H.E. Ellis, said, "OxyContin is a good drug if it is taken properly. Pharmacy companies don't spend billions of dollars developing drugs if they are going to kill people" (Kaczor, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 2/20). The New York Times reports that "[i]t is rare for doctors to be charged" with serious crimes in connection to patient drug overdoses, and "[s]everal legal experts had questioned" whether the jury would convict Graves (New York Times, 2/20). Advocates for doctors say that "overzealous" prosecutors "unfairly" hold physicians responsible for what patients do with their prescriptions, and typically, doctors accused of improperly prescribing drugs are charged with fraud or illegally prescribing controlled substances. "At least two other doctors" in the country are facing serious charges for the OxyContin-related deaths of their patients, the AP/St. Petersburg Times reports. A doctor from West Palm Beach, Fla., "could face a death sentence" if convicted of first-degree murder in the overdose death of a patient, and a doctor in Redding, Calif., goes to trial next week on three counts of manslaughter (AP/St. Petersburg Times, 2/20).
In the wake of the "spate" of OxyContin deaths across the country, several states are looking to "crack down" on prescription drug abuse, the Wall Street Journal reports. Legislators in Florida, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania are considering proposals that would tighten physicians' standards for prescribing addictive drugs, set up prescription drug tracking systems and strengthen sentencing laws for abusers. Maine already has adopted "tougher penalties" for illegally selling addictive prescription drugs, while Louisiana and Virginia have started government studies to examine potential legislative action (Pinkstrong, Wall Street Journal, 2/20).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.