Crime

Doctor at pill mill that drew in KY addicts and drug dealers sentenced to 40 years

A Virginia doctor whose clinic drew in drug addicts and dealers from Kentucky and several other states was sentenced Wednesday to 40 years in prison.

Prosecutors said the physician, Joel A. Smithers, wrote prescriptions for 500,000 opioid pain pills in just two years at his office in Martinsville, Va.

People from Kentucky and other states traveled 12 hours or more to get the clinic because they knew Smithers would give them prescriptions for painkillers without doing real examinations, then abused or sold the drugs they received, prosecutors said in court documents.

In one case cited in a prosecution memorandum, a woman drove from Kentucky to Martinsville, but Smithers was not in his office and instead told her to meet him in the parking lot of a Starbucks in North Carolina.

The woman, who was not named in the memo, gave Smithers $300 and he handed her a prescription, without doing a physical examination.

“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, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Smithers’ operation had every hallmark of a pill mill, federal authorities said.

Joel Smithers
Virginia physician Joel A. Smithers was convicted in 2019 of running a pill mill that attracted drug addicts from Kentucky and other states. Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority

The office didn’t have basic medical supplies and accepted only cash and credit cards. Smithers took in more than $700,000 in 20 months, according to prosecutors.

Staffers at the office didn’t have adequate medical training; the drug screener had worked as a server at a Mexican restaurant before taking the job, and the receptionist, who slept in the back of the office, said he wouldn’t go to Smithers for a legitimate medical problem, according to prosecutors.

People slept outside while waiting for the clinic to open and urinated in the parking lot.

A jury convicted Smithers, 36, on more than 800 drug charges.

“This physician perpetuated, on a massive scale, the vicious cycle of addiction and despair,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said.

The types of drugs Smithers prescribed have been blamed for tens of thousands of overdose deaths in the U.S. Kentucky has had a high rate of abuse of opioids, though the number of overdose deaths dropped last year for the first time in years.

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