Photo: Toby Talbot/AP

Today, federal prosecutors charged dozens of medical professionals across seven states for illegally distributing opioid prescriptions and pills, according to the New York Times. The professionals were allegedly trading prescriptions for money and sex, among other illegal activities.

These stories are wild, and demonstrate the impunity with which some medical professionals have been operating.

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From the Times:

Prosecutors said the doctor in northern Alabama “recruited prostitutes and other young women with whom he had sexual relationships” to become his patients. He also opened his home to people using heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana, they said, in a criminal complaint, adding that police officers had been to the house several times concerning overdoses and other complaints. [...]

One of the doctors facing charges in Ohio had at one time prescribed more controlled substances than anyone else in the state, prosecutors said. A pharmacy in Dayton, Ohio, was accused of dispensing more than 1.75 million pills. And a nurse practitioner in Tennessee who called himself the Rock Doc was accused of prescribing hundreds of thousands of pills in exchange for sex.

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Officials say the indictments are the “single largest prescription opioid law enforcement operation in history.”

The charges target a total of 60 people, including 31 doctors. They reflect just how easy it was for professionals to access these medications.

“These cases involve approximately 350,000 opioid prescriptions and more than 32 million pills—the equivalent of a dose of opioids for every man, woman and child across the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia combined,” Brian Benczkowski, assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a press conference.

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Previously, law enforcement efforts have mostly targeted illegal drugs. But it’s prescription drugs that have largely fueled the opiate crisis. In 2017, 70,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, at least a quarter of which were from prescription opioids.

“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.

Some of these charges, including unlawful distribution of controlled substances and conspiracy to obtain controlled substances by fraud, could lead to jail time of up to 50 years.

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The investigation was headed by the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Task Force, a group of prosecutors working alongside federal agents and data analysts. The group was created in 2018 to examine evidence that some doctors were overprescribing opioids.

Thankfully, the prosecutors involved in the case say they are taking steps to ensure that the people who were prescribed medications by these doctors will get help.

“When a doctor who has been prescribing opioids is arrested and his customers show up to find the clinic shuttered, public health and safety officials will be on site to get those folks the kind of help and treatment that they need,” Benjamin C. Glassman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, told reporters. “Enforcement and treatment are both critical, as of course is prevention, if we are to turn the tide of this opioids crisis.”

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We would argue that treatment and prevention are in fact a lot more critical than enforcement, but it’s good to hear that the feds aren’t just leaving addicts to withdraw and potentially relapse on their own.

Even with available treatment, which is hardly a guarantee in America, it’s clear that getting rid of drug supply isn’t enough. A study from 2018 found that the opioid crisis is “fundamentally fueled by economic and social upheaval” and that people use opioids as “a refuge from physical and psychological trauma, concentrated disadvantage, isolation, and hopelessness.” If we want people to stop getting addicted to drugs, we need to create a more just society.

We’d also recommend pursuing legal action the people who cynically pushed the drugs on doctors and the public in the first place. The Sackler family, for example. Increasingly, states, cities, and other entities are doing just that. A federal judge in Cleveland is currently looking at 1,600 cases brought against the Sacklers and other producers of opioid pills like OxyContin. That’s a start.