Doctors in five states charged with prescribing pain killers for cash, sex

April 17 at 3:59 PM

Dozens of medical professionals in five states were charged Wednesday with participating in the illegal prescribing of more than 32 million pain pills, including doctors who prosecutors said traded sex for prescriptions and a dentist who unnecessarily pulled teeth from patients to justify giving them opioids.

The 60 people indicted include 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed medical professionals. The charges involve more than 350,000 illegal prescriptions written in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia, according to indictments unsealed in federal court in Cincinnati.

“That is the equivalent of one opioid dose for every man, woman and child in the five states in the region that we’ve been targeting,” Brian Benczkowski, an assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in an interview. “If these medical professionals behave like drug dealers, you can rest assured that the Justice Department is going to treat them like drug dealers.”

The charges include unlawful distribution or dispensing of controlled substances by a medical professional and health-care fraud. Each count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence, and many of the defendants face multiple counts. One doctor in Tennessee is charged in connection with an overdose death caused by opioids, officials said.

The indictments are part of a broader effort by the Justice Department to combat the nation’s prescription pain pill epidemic, which claimed the lives of nearly 218,000 Americans between 1999 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How fentanyl triggered the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history Fentanyl, a powerful painkiller, has become the leading cause of overdose deaths in America. 

Over the past two years, Justice Department officials said they have targeted doctors, health-care companies and drug manufacturers and distributors for their roles in the epidemic. Last year, the department charged 162 defendants, including 76 doctors, for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics.

Benczkowski said he created the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force late last year to target the region, which has been devastated by the epidemic. The department analyzed several databases to identify suspicious prescribing activity and sent 14 prosecutors to 11 federal districts there.

“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 P. Barr said in a statement.

Once they had the data indicating suspicious prescriptions, investigators used confidential informants and undercover agents to infiltrate medical offices across the region. Cameras and tape recorders were rolling as they documented how medical professionals used their licenses to peddle highly addictive opioids in exchange for cash and sex, officials said. The arrests began early Wednesday morning.

In one case, a doctor operated a pharmacy in his office, just outside the exam room, where patients could fill their prescriptions for opioids immediately after receiving cursory exams, according to the Justice Department. In another, prosecutors said, patients consented to having their teeth pulled so they could obtain opioid prescriptions from a dentist and then paid in cash.

In a number of cases, according to the indictments, doctors across the region traded prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone for sexual favors. Some physicians instructed their patients to fill multiple prescriptions at different pharmacies. Prosecutors also documented how patients traveled to multiple states to see different doctors so they could collect and then fill numerous prescriptions.

“What these doctors have done is pretty remarkable in its brazenness,” Benczkowski said.

In Dayton, Ohio, which has been hit particularly hard, a doctor who authorities say was the state’s highest prescriber of controlled substances, along with several pharmacists, was charged with operating a “pill mill.” Prosecutors say that the health-care professionals dispensed more than 1.7 million pills between October 2015 and October 2017.

In Tennessee, a doctor who branded himself the “Rock Doc,” allegedly prescribed dangerous combinations of opioids and benzodiazepines, sometimes in exchange for sexual favors. Over the course of three years, prosecutors say he prescribed nearly 500,000 hydrocodone pills, 300,000 oxycodone pills, 1,500 fentanyl patches and more than 600,000 benzodiazepines.

In Alabama, a doctor allegedly recruited prostitutes and other young women to become patients at his clinic and allowed them to use drugs at his home, prosecutors said. Another Alabama doctor allegedly prescribed opioids in high doses and charged a “concierge fee” of $600 per year to be one of his patients.

Prosecutors allege that a doctor in Kentucky prescribed pain killers to his Facebook friends who would come to his home to pick up their prescriptions in exchange for cash.

Prosecutors also said some health-care professionals prescribed opioids for themselves. An orthopedic surgeon in West Virginia allegedly wrote fraudulent prescriptions for pain pills using the name of a relative and a stolen driver’s license from a colleague. In Pennsylvania, a state outside the targeted region, prosecutors say a nurse filled out phony prescriptions for oxycodone in her name and in the names of others to obtain pills for herself.

The arrests could leave thousands of addicts and legitimate pain patients without access to their doctors and health-care professionals. Federal and local public health officials say they are working together to “ensure continuity of care.”

“It is also vital that Americans struggling with addiction have access to treatment and that patients who need pain treatment do not see their care disrupted,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement.

The opioid indictments come as more than 1,500 cities, counties, Native American tribes and unions are suing drug companies in one of the largest and most complicated civil cases in U.S. history.

A federal judge in Cleveland is overseeing the cases, which accuse some of the biggest names in the industry of fueling the opioid epidemic by failing to report suspicious orders of narcotics and falsely marketing opioids to pain patients. The companies have blamed the epidemic on corrupt doctors and pain management clinics and say the epidemic is too complicated to attribute to their actions.

Justice officials Wednesday did not discuss the companies that have supplied opioids to the Appalachian region. Benczkowski said this investigation targeted medical professionals because they were “the gatekeepers to the patients.”

“But obviously, if there are doctors or others who give us information working backward up the chain in the course of this case or any other case we’re going to be interested in hearing what they have to say,” he said.

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Louisiana’s medical marijuana program the core issue in Agriculture Commissioner race

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana’s agriculture and forestry commissioner has drawn his first announced challenger for the fall election, an opponent slamming his management of medical marijuana.   Charlie Greer ran unsuccessfully four years ago against Republican Commissioner Mike Strain and announced Monday he’ll again oppose Strain on the Oct. 12 ballot.

Greer is a Democrat from Natchitoches (NAK’-a-dish) Parish and a farmer who worked in the Department of Agriculture and Forestry for 20 years before retiring in 2013.
In his announcement, Greer criticizes Strain for his regulation of Louisiana’s medical marijuana program. Though lawmakers approved a dispensing framework for cannabis nearly four years ago, medical marijuana still hasn’t reached patients.

Greer says the commissioner created unnecessary roadblocks and he’d work to lessen bureaucracy.
Strain has defended his approach, saying the regulations ensure public safety.

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Schexnayder proposes legislation to produce industrial hemp in Louisiana

Representative Clay Schexnayder (District 81) is proposing legislation for the 2019 session that creates an opportunity for Louisiana farmers to produce industrial hemp, as authorized in the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill) approved by Congress.

Under this state legislation, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry would be the regulatory agency responsible for this initiative, and developing the regulations for the production and sale of industrial hemp and industrial hemp products, according to a news release from Schexnayder’s office. All regulations will require approval by the USDA prior to implementation.

Based on the recently passed Farm Bill, industrial hemp is defined as cannabis with a THC level below 0.3% and has been removed from the Schedule I list of controlled substances. If this legislation is approved, industrial hemp would be an additional commodity available for the state’s agricultural producers, further expanding Louisiana’s agricultural market opportunities, according to the release.

“Industrial hemp is an alternative specialty high-value crop with the potential to create new industries and enhance economic development for Louisiana,” says Rep. Clay Schexnayder. “The importance of agriculture in Louisiana increases the need to provide both opportunities to introduce first time producers to agriculture and allow existing producers the opportunity to diversify their farming interests for economic stability options. ”

Representative Clay Schexnayder (District 81)(Photo courtesy: La. House of Representatives website)

The release states, as of 2018, more than 33 states had enacted legislation authorizing the production of industrial hemp, or research initiatives under the 2014 Farm Bill, and reauthorization of and expansion of the federal approval for agricultural producers to grow industrial hemp will likely expand states participating in industrial hemp programs across the country.

“Industrial hemp would be a welcomed crop for Louisiana Producers to diversify their harvest.” Says Ronnie Anderson, Louisiana Farm Bureau President.

Schexnayder and other interested legislators and legislative staff have been meeting with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, law enforcement representatives, the LSU Agricultural Center and producers from across the state to formulate language that meets the federal requirements and maintains strong regulatory oversight, according to Representative Clay Schexnayder’s press release.

“Throughout the history of America, industrial hemp has played a vital role in agriculture. Reintroduction of this commodity will provide new opportunities, especially for our small to mid-size farmers,” said Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, D.V.M.

Louisiana’s climate creates challenges for producers of all commodities. Whether rain, drought, insects or disease, all will be unique factors that need to be addressed. This legislation will authorize the agricultural arms of the state’s land-grant institutions to conduct research on industrial hemp to aid producers and create value added opportunities.

LSU Vice President for Agriculture, Bill Richardson commented, “The AgCenter’s crop scientists can develop and test industrial hemp varieties that are tolerant to Louisiana conditions and provide high fiber and oilseed for processing.”

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Industrial hemp bill could be introduced in the Louisiana legislature this spring

BATON ROUGE, La. – (KNOE) The Louisiana legislative session doesn’t start until April 6th but already there’s talk of a bill to legalize industrial Hemp. Hemp is a cousin to marijuana but you can’t get “high” off hemp.

A workshop on industrial hemp in New Orleans. | Photo: KNOE

Industrial hemp is part of the Cannabis plant species that is grown specifically for industrial uses, like fiber, plastics, asphalt, and even clothing. Hemp is not a mind-altering drug.

“We think there are some opportunities with our farmers to grow industrial hemp. It cannot have above .3 percent THC in it. So we have some farmers we talked to are very interested,” said Dr. Bill Richardson, Vice President of Agriculture for LSU.

But growing hemp is illegal in Louisiana. You harvest hemp from the stalk. So a law legalizing it would have to pass the legislature for it to be an option for producers.

“It’s going to be a big process of education where we in agriculture, not just the urban legislators but everybody watching this process, what industrial hemp does for the citizens and farmers of Louisiana,” said Joe Mapes, Legislative Specialist with Louisiana Farm Bureau.

Joe Mapes with Louisiana Farm Bureau has been researching the possibility of industrial hemp as a rotation crop for Louisiana farmers. Recently, at the American Farm Bureau convention in New Orleans, a workshop on industrial hemp had a standing room only crowd. But he admits it will an uphill battle.

“We’ve got some social issues attached with it. That’s what we’re going to have to pass first. Could have a law if things go well,” said Mapes.

But the first hurdle to jump would be getting the bill through agriculture committee. Senator Francis Thompson of Delhi is the chairman of the Senate agriculture committee. He says at this time he couldn’t support such a bill.

“We gotta make sure that it’s not something that would cause our kids to be involved like marijuana for recreation use and I’m afraid that something of the interests from out of state may not have our best interest in mind,” said Senator Francis Thompson of Delhi.

Limited release’ of marijuana slated for May, with full supply in the fall, grower says

One of Louisiana’s two medical marijuana growers is planning to do a “limited release” of the drug in May, a move aimed at getting treatments to those most in need amid demands from frustrated patients and pharmacy owners.

GB Sciences, the firm hired by LSU to run its marijuana-growing program, will take product it has already made in a temporary facility and release it to the state’s nine licensed pharmacies, GB Sciences Louisiana President John Davis said at a medical marijuana stakeholder meeting at the Louisiana Department of Agriculture offices in Baton Rouge.

After that, the company’s first full harvest of plants in the main facility that it just moved into won’t happen until August. It will take about a month to turn that into tinctures for sale to patients, Davis said.

“We want to go forward with the pharmacies with a limited release so we can get medicine to the most critically in-need patients,” Davis said.

“In general we would like to aim for May,” Davis said. “We know there are a lot of things involved with that,” he added. “We know it’s not going to supply the whole market.”

While GB Sciences is working to produce marijuana in its main facility, it will also be doing several harvests in the temporary pod, Davis said. After August, the company will be fully operating.

Patients and advocates packed the room Monday for the second meeting in a row to complain about repeated delays of the state’s medical marijuana program. Lawmakers passed legislation outlining the program in 2015, and set the program forward in 2016.

The Louisiana Association of Therapeutic Alternatives, which represents the state’s marijuana pharmacies and some doctors and patients, demanded product hit the shelves by May 15.

“We need this medication,” said Doug Boudreaux, head of the association and owner of a north Louisiana marijuana pharmacy. “We’re desperate for this medication.”

The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy selected nine pharmacies to sell marijuana in different regions throughout the state last spring. The board has since issued five of nine permits, while four others are awaiting inspections, said Carlos Finalet, general counsel for the pharmacy board.

While GB Sciences said it will release the drug in May, it is not clear who will be eligible to get access to the drug if it does become available then, as Davis made clear the amount of product would not be enough meet the demands of the entire market. The company will know soon how much product it will have for the May release, Davis said in an interview.

View full article here

Louisiana medical marijuana backers demand product by May 15

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana pharmacists permitted to dispense medical marijuana and the patients waiting for it are demanding that state regulators allow therapeutic cannabis to reach shelves by May 15.

GB Sciences, one of two state-sanctioned growers, said Monday it hopes to have a “limited release of product” by mid-May, available to patients with the most severe conditions. It’s unclear who would be on that list.

A larger release for all eligible patients is predicted for August or later.

But any product availability is contingent on completion of lab testing and other regulatory hurdles by the state agriculture department, which oversees medical marijuana.

Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain hopes to meet the May 15 deadline, but he didn’t commit to it.

Lawmakers agreed to a medical marijuana dispensing framework nearly four years ago.

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LSU fires back in cannabis flap, calls Strain’s accusations reckless, untrue

(Daily Advertiser)- LSU AgCenter Vice President Bill Richardson on Friday, March 8, 2019, fired back at Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, calling Strain’s accusation that LSU is breaking the law by expanding its medical marijuana program “untrue” and “reckless.”

It’s the latest volley in an escalating feud between LSU AgCenter and Strain over the state’s fledgling cannabis program.

“Commissioner Strain made reckless and unsupported public accusations against the LSU AgCenter and GB Sciences Louisiana (LSU’s private partner) and threatened litigation,” Richardson said in a statement. “The allegations made by Commissioner Strain are simply untrue.”

The LSU AgCenter and Southern University AgCenter are the only ones who can legally grow the cannabis and produce the medicine, but Strain is the regulator who must sign off on their ability to proceed.

Though medical cannabis has been legal for years, it has yet to reach pharmacies and patients because of regulatory hurdles for LSU and its private partner GB Sciences. Southern’s program lags LSU because of early issues with its original private partner.

LSU contends Strain’s agency granted permission last week to proceed with moving the first crop from a small temporary growing pod into the main facility, but Strain said the move was based on a proposed contract with conditions that LSU refused to sign.

“They’ve fought the law every step of the way,” Strain said Monday in an exclusive interview with USA Today Network. “We’ve sent them a notice that they’re in violation of the law and we’ll proceed to a (court hearing).

“It’s crystal clear the movement of the plants was contingent on signing the memorandum of understanding,” said Strain, who said LSU AgCenter has resisted oversight from the beginning.

Richadson said the written offer from Strain to move the plants wasn’t reliant on signing the memorandum of understanding, insisting that was separate from the permission to move the plants.

“Relying on this written approval from the LDAF, the LSU AgCenter moved plant material into the two specific rooms on Friday, March 1, 2019,” Richards said. “The following Monday, an LDAF inspector issued a deficiency notice to the LSU AgCenter for doing what Commissioner Strain expressly approved the week before.”

Richardson said patients are suffering while he contends Strain is unnecessarily dragging his feet.

“Commissioner Strain’s actions are preventing thousands of patients from receiving the medical relief that they are anxiously awaiting and deserve,” Richardson said. “The LSU AgCenter calls on Commissioner Mike Strain to immediately allow this program to proceed, so that the patients of Louisiana can receive the medicine to which they are legally entitled.”

Strain has said LSU and GB Sciences are resisting providing information to Louisiana State Police for a required “suitability study,” or extensive background check that must be complete before Strain gives his blessing.

“Nothing is being done to hinder production of medical marijuana,” Strain said Friday in a statement. “The reason for issuing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is to allow LSU AgCenter, the licensee, to supervise its subcontractor, GBSL, during hours of operation at the facility until the suitability determination is approved.

“LSU, the licensee, is deemed suitable by law, but GBSL, the subcontractor, is not. Suitability, as required by law, includes but is not limited to criminal, civil and financial background checks. In accordance with the MOU, LSU can supervise GBSL, the subcontractor, until the suitability process is completed and approved by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF).

“As of now, LSU-GBSL is not in compliance. Again, the LDAF cannot give LSU-GBSL the authority to break the law. However, LSU-GBSL can be in compliance to only move plant material into the requested rooms (Mother room and Vegetative room) by signing the MOU which was clearly a requirement as noted in the original letter dated February 28, 2019.”

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Lawmaker predicts legislative hearings on state’s troubled medical marijuana program

The state legislator who sponsored the 2015 bill creating the state’s star-crossed medical marijuana program expects lawmakers will call public hearings when they convene next month if there’s no resolution to the escalating dispute between the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and the LSU AgCenter over the suitability of LSU’s grow partner.

Sen. Fred Mills, R-New Iberia, says it’s frustrating that nearly four years after lawmakers legalized medical marijuana there’s still no product on the shelves of the 10 pharmacies licensed to provide relief to patients around the state suffering from chronic illness.

“There is going to have to be some public hearings to let the public know what the status of everything is,” Mills says. “I think the committee chairs are going to call everybody to the table to tell us what the heck is going on. If between now and April 8 they cannot get this worked out, we’re going to have to get much more involved.”

The Southern University Ag Center and the LSU AgCenter are the only two licensed growers in the state under the law, yet neither has been able to bring a product to market.

Southern’s delays stem from problems it has had with its private grow partner. That firm has since been bought out by a new group of investors and the program appears to be back on track.

LSU’s program, however, which had planned to have medical marijuana available by the beginning of the year, is now embroiled in controversy with LDAF over suitability issues with its grow partner, GB Sciences.

The university says LDAF is placing unfair regulatory burdens on GB Sciences, while LDAF says the company has refused to make available certain information necessary to determine its suitability.

LSU counters the firm was vetted during a public procurement process and has met all the state’s requirements.

Mills says he’s been trying to get to the bottom of what’s behind all the bad blood, which culminated earlier this month when LDAF Commissioner Mike Strain accused LSU and GB Sciences of breaking the law by moving plant material into a part of its Industriplex growth facility before signing a Memorandum of Understanding. LSU says it will not sign the MOU because it is beyond the scope of the law.

“I’ve told all sides they’ve got to sit in a big conference room with every lawyer available and iron this thing out,” Mills says. “It’s not that hard. We’re not the first state to market. This is not a pioneering piece of agriculture. Why is it taking us so long to reinvent the wheel?”

Gov. John Bel Edwards declines to get involved in the dispute at this point, saying through a spokesperson that the issue falls under the purview of the commissioner of agriculture.

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Agriculture department offers to let LSU expand marijuana production as regulatory process plays out

Louisiana’s state agriculture department on Thursday offered to give LSU permission to expand its medical marijuana-growing operations if its contractor meets certain conditions related to the regulatory process.

Under the agreement, which has not yet been signed, LSU and its contractor, GB Sciences Louisiana, would be allowed to move “plant material” into the vegetative room and mother room of its production facility in south Baton Rouge.

GB Sciences is currently operating in a smaller “pod” facility and has not moved into the main facility because it has not won full regulatory approvals from the state agriculture department. The endeavor has been delayed several times, keeping marijuana from reaching patients several years after the state legalized the program.

View the full article here

View the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners Verification Results here. 

Our opinion: Medical marijuana — State must work out the problems

Louisiana has had more than enough time to get its medical marijuana program up and running.

Not only does the state Department of Agriculture have guiding instructions in the form of the 2016 law regulating the effort, but it also has the collective experience of the many other states that have been down this road before us. And, most importantly, it has had two years to get it off the ground.

But still there are delays and confusion.

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