Doctors who prescribe opioid painkillers to chronic pain patients are, as we know, the subject of intense regulatory and law enforcement scrutiny today. Many of my doctor-clients are under investigation or being charged for supposed crimes arising out of their prescription writing. While every case is different, to me there is a universally applicable defense that should be raised on doctors’ behalf in court against a criminal charge.
That defense relates to lack of criminal intent, since opioids’ addictive power was not known or acknowledged until years after the drugs’ approval for mass use. Today, a criminal charge is at its essence a misguided and ill-considered way of blaming doctors for not having seen the future, for not having foreseen what would happen, even though government regulators and even the drug manufacturing companies didn’t see the abuse crisis coming, either.
The FDA originally blessed the prescribing of powerful and potentially addictive medication for chronic pain. We now know that the scientific evidence offered by Big Pharma about the safety of the medications for chronic pain was incomplete at best, wrong at worst. There are attempts being made today by counsel in various parts of the country to uncover any possible funny business or overly cozy relationships which may have existed between government regulators and private business (Pharma advocates) during the drugs’ approval process years ago. Is this the Erin Brockovich-like scandal waiting to break? Could be.
Whether or not a scandal exists or will be revealed, though, it still must be noted that doctors were the ones who were told by the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies that drugs like Oxycontin and other opioid-based painkillers were safe and effective for chronic pain. The addiction risk was significantly downplayed or underestimated by regulators and manufacturers. The drug companies unleashed a marketing and advertising juggernaut to persuade patients that the miracle pain drugs had at last arrived. That was then; this is now. And now that we know the drugs so frequently lead to addiction, we can change the advice and practice guidelines given to doctors, but we cannot hold them legally accountable for not knowing what the rest of us didn’t know, either – or what some people in the game may not have revealed – years ago.