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Virginia doctor who prescribed more than 500,000 doses of opioids sentenced to 40 years in prison

A doctor who prosecutors said ran a medical practice in Virginia like an interstate drug distribution ring was sentenced Wednesday to 40 years in prison for illegally prescribing opioids. Dr. Joel Smithers was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Abingdon.

Judge James Jones sentenced Smithers to 40 years. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life.

Smithers was convicted in May of more than 800 counts of illegally distributing opioids, including oxycodone and oxymorphone that caused the death of a West Virginia woman. Authorities said Smithers prescribed more than 500,000 doses of opioids to patients from Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee while based in Martinsville, Virginia, from 2015 to 2017.

U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said the sentence, while severe, "serves as just punishment" for Smithers' actions. "This physician perpetuated, on a massive scale, the vicious cycle of addiction and despair," Cullen said in a statement.

Pill Mill Doctor
This undated photo provided by the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority shows Dr. Joel Smithers.  Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority / AP

Smithers, 36, a married father of five from Greensboro, North Carolina, testified that he was a caring doctor who was deceived by some of his patients. Some patients remained fiercely loyal to him, testifying that they needed the powerful opioids he prescribed for them to cope with chronic pain.

WSET-TV reported that the judge recommended that Smithers serve his sentence in a prison close to his family and that he receive mental health treatment. Smithers wrote in a court filing that he plans to appeal his convictions. His attorney did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the sentence.

The opioid epidemic has ravaged the United States for the better part of the last two decades. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from drug overdoses over the past 20 years, with the number rising from 16,849 in 1999 to 70,237 in 2017.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates prescription and illegal opioids have been linked to more than 430,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000. In 2017, there were 47,000 opioid related deaths alone. That's more Americans than were killed in vehicle accidents or by firearms.

In September, the Trump administration announced new funding for states to combat the opioid epidemic. The administration is giving the Department of Health and Human Services $1.8 billion to help communities fight the crisis.

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