Prisoner Of Pain

How One Man's Quest For Pain Relief Landed Him In Jail

Last Updated Jan 31, 2006 10:34 AM EST

But Paey says he consumed every single pill. 60 Minutes asked Dr. Russell Portnoy, chairman of the Department of Pain Medicine at New York's Beth Israel Hospital if that's possible.

"People are literally able to take industrial strength doses without sustaining any problem at all," says Portnoy. "Look, I take care of two grandmothers. Each one requiring grams a day of morphine. Absolutely extraordinary doses. Now, obviously, if these high doses were given before they had a chance to acclimate to the drug, they would have been lethal."

Does Portnoy think authorities have been overzealous in going after doctors and patients who are abusing the pain medication?

"There's a very deep concern on the part of the medical profession that the authorities don't know anything about pain medicine; and are so afraid of prescription drug abuse that they tend to investigate or go after prescribers on the basis of very weak evidence," says Portnoy.

In the end, while there was no evidence Paey was selling drugs, under Florida law, the possession of just one bottle of illegally obtained painkillers — just 28 grams — is considered drug trafficking, which carries a higher penalty than trafficking in much larger amounts of cocaine.

"The word 'trafficking' in a lot of people's minds outside the law suggests sale," says Andringa. "Trafficking can mean sale, but it can also mean possession of a quantity of a controlled substance over a certain amount."

And Paey easily obtained that amount. Surveillance video shows Paey walking with difficulty, with the aid of leg braces. It also shows him obtaining 1,600 pills over a 41 day period, with eight prescriptions that his doctor said were forged. Paey was facing serious charges.

Andringa's office offered him a plea bargain, which carried no jail time as long as he admitted to the crimes.

But Paey says he feared that would be trading one prison for another.

"There is something worse than living in severe, unrelenting pain. And that's living in severe, unrelenting pain not getting relief," he says. "Had I accepted a plea bargain and carried that, a conviction on my record, I would have found it near impossible to get any medication. I didn't wanna plead guilty to something that I didn't do."

Asked if he is a stubborn guy, Paey says he thought it was a principled position to take. "I was trying to retake that dignity I had lost and this, I felt, the state was so hell-bent on taking from me."

But prosecutor Andringa says that the jury was convinced by the evidence that Paey had forged some prescriptions.

"This case is not about pain patients. It's just not. This case is about prescription fraud," he says. "We were very reasonable in this case. But once somebody says, 'I'm not going to accept a plea offer however reasonable it is,' then …"

"You throw the book," Safer says.

"Exactly. And Mr. Paey knew that. He went to law school," Andringa says.

A jury convicted Richard Paey of 15 counts of prescription forgery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and drug trafficking. Under Florida law, the judge had no alternative but to sentence him to 25 years.

Paey admits he expected to win in court.

His wife, Linda, was shattered by the verdict. She says it is just too difficult for her to allow her children to see their father in prison.

"I'm not going to tell the children that their, he's gonna be in for 25 years," says Linda Paey. "I just, I can't do that. You know, I really think he will get out and, as time goes, you know, they grow, he gets grayer. So I don't, I'm the only one who sees that."

Portnoy, among the most eminent pain specialists in the country, says that Paey's behavior — wanting to ensure a steady stream of pain killers — is not unusual among patients in severe pain.

"It really sounds like society used a mallet to try to handle a problem that required a much more subtle approach," says Portnoy. "If they had taken this man who had engaged in behaviors that were unacceptable and treated it as a medical issue, it seems like this patient would have had better pain control and a functional life instead of being in prison."

Ironically, Richard Paey now gets all the drugs he needs. The state of Florida pays for a morphine pump which delivers a constant stream of medication directly to his spine, providing him with pain relief at doses more powerful than the drugs he was taking when he was arrested.

To contact Richard Paey or to learn more about his appeal, contact the Pain Relief Network.

By Deirdre Naphin By Deirdre Naphin