Drug Policy

William Hurwitz Sentenced to Less Than Five Years

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On Friday U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema sentenced Virginia doctor William Hurwitz to four years and nine months in federal prison for 16 counts of "drug trafficking" based on his prescriptions of narcotic painkillers. That's less than one-fifth the 25-year sentence Hurwitz received after his first trial, in which he was found guilty of 50 counts, several of which carried mandatory minimum sentences of 20 years. Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned those convictions, finding that the judge, Leonard Wexler, had improperly instructed the jury not to consider whether Hurwitz had acted in good faith when he wrote presciptions for patients who abused or sold the drugs.

In addition to the change in jury instructions, which helped reduce the number of counts on which Hurwitz was convicted, the switch from Wexler to Brinkema made a big difference. Before the case went to the jury, she dismissed the three counts that carried mandatory minimums, which accused Hurwitz of drug trafficking resulting in the death of one patient and the serious injury of two others, finding that the prosecution had not presented enough evidence to back up the charges. In sentencing him to 57 months instead of the life sentence the prosecution wanted, Brinkema noted that the vast majority of Hurwitz's patients were legitimate and that he was, at least to some extent, a victim of deception by the others. Brinkema clearly heard the case with an open mind and took to heart the defense's points about the propriety of high-dose opioid therapy for severe chronic pain:

When she first took the case, Brinkema said she thought the dosages that Hurwitz prescribed were "absolutely crazy." But she said defense witnesses turned her around. "An increasing body of respectable medical literature and expertise supports those types of high-dosage, opioid medications," the judge said.

Some of the more than 40 supporters of Hurwitz who packed the courtroom said they were generally pleased. "I think the judge did her God-awful best to be fair," said Hurwitz's brother, Ken Hurwitz. "It's a harsh sentence, but it's vastly more reasonable" than the previous one, he said.

At worst, Hurwitz was guilty of trusting his patients too much and turning a blind eye to signs that they were faking or exaggerating their pain. Even in our current system, which requires doctors to help enforce drug prohibition, these alleged failings could have been addressed by the state medical board and should not have led to criminal prosecution. There was no evidence that Hurwitz deliberately fed the black market or that he profited from drug sales. But given the charges on which he was convicted, Brinkema's sentence is about as good a result as could reasonably have been expected. Having already served two and a half years, Hurwitz should be free by late 2009.

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  1. I know a couple of people who can write prescriptions. Doctors and Nurse Practitioners, and they all have stories of a time when a pill addict got the better of them. My brother, for instance, continues to be steamed about an instance where a veteran got him to wrote a bunch of prescriptions for him because of back pain.
    The thing is, the vet really did have back pain, it was just that he was shopping around for prescriptions because he was an addict. My brother didn’t realize he had gotten over on him until he was long gone.
    To think that a doctor could be jailed due to one of these guys is really beyond the pale.

  2. the switch from Wexler to Brinkema made a big difference.

    Five years is certainly much less egregious than 25. But still outrageous since, as Jacob points out, even worst case this should not be a criminal matter. Most depressing of all, this seems to be the best result our judicial system is capable of, with the 25 years scenario still available (most likely?) next time around.

  3. “Free,” but free to practice medicine? I’d sure as hell trust him over the average doctor to treat MY pain if I’m ever in pain, as would most libertarian types, no doubt, but will we have that choice? I doubt it…
    JMR

  4. Is this really any way to get a dangerous drug trafficer; who is selling dope for the purpose of poisoning America’s children, off the street? 25 years would have been a light sentence, but this is a slap on the wrist to all those families who lost loved oned to addiction.

  5. Jim,

    Welcome. Haven’t seen you around. Have you met Edward and Juanita yet? If you find yourself out of place here, you might try littlegreenfootballs.com.

  6. I have legitimate and degenerative pain due to CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome). However, since the symptoms are largely idiopathic (no known cause) and I completely fit the bill of a drug-seeking individual I have never been able to have anything stronger than Tylenol 3. The system is not working for me.

  7. The system is not working for me.

    It most certainly is because it is keeping you from being an addict, which is far worse that being in a little ‘pain’.

    Also, what are the effects of these drugs on addiction and society? Sometimes a few individuals need to suffer for what is better for society.

    You need to just tougthen up and deal with it. Suffering is the Christian way, it is good for the soul.

  8. I have legitimate and degenerative pain due to CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome). However, since the symptoms are largely idiopathic (no known cause) and I completely fit the bill of a drug-seeking individual I have never been able to have anything stronger than Tylenol 3. The system is not working for me.

    I feel for you, maybe the government wants you to buy street heroin instead?

  9. It most certainly is because it is keeping you from being an addict, which is far worse that being in a little ‘pain’.

    Shut up you sadistic phucking basshole.

  10. I was surfing the tube last night and saw abit of cops.I didn’t know you could be arrested for ‘loitering in a known drug area’ by sitting in your car in the middle of the day.

  11. Jim please read this.
    http://www.fff.org/freedom/0490e.asp
    And may God have more mercy toward you than you show to others.

  12. Rob, if you’re like me you get e-mail offers all the time for drugs. Ever order any that way?

  13. Robert,
    I get those e-mails all the time, along with others for crank-enlarging cream (just rub it on and your crank will grow), herbal viagra, ways to make money from home, and offers to share a bit of money expatriated from various Sub-Saharan African countries.

    For some reason, I think the “we have docs who will write you a prescription for our online pharmacy” drug spam e-mails are not a reliable source for pain medication.

  14. “It most certainly is because it is keeping you from being an addict, which is far worse that being in a little ‘pain’.”

    Anyone who writes a statement this idiotic has never dealt with chronic pain problems and frankly is not intellectually equipped to enter an argument concerning the prescibing of pain medication.

  15. Anyone who writes a statement this idiotic has never dealt with chronic pain problems and frankly is not intellectually equipped to enter an argument concerning the prescibing of pain medication is just an obnoxious troll-for-sport who finds itself funny, and thus may safely be ignored. Outrageous but insincere pro-drug war arguments, usually by users whose names begin with J (Jim, Juanita), are kind of a tradition here — somewhere both above and below Dan T.’s level of trollery.

  16. Anyone who writes a statement this idiotic is just an obnoxious troll-for-sport who finds itself funny, and thus may safely be ignored.

    So just ignore him, for crying out loud. Your comment was premium Purina Troll Chow.

  17. Damn, you zinged me. Wow, do I feel properly chastened.

  18. Well, Scooby, a friend of mine did actually obtain an unprescribed controlled substance thru one of those e-mail offerings, so I wouldn’t dismiss them.

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