OxyContin can be a godsend to people with chronic pain. But drug abusers have quickly found that when the prescription painkiller tablets are chewed, snorted, or injected, they deliver a heroin-like high.
Florida Panhandle physician Dr. James Graves, who faces 30 years in prison, knows about that high all too well.
Last month, a state circuit court jury in Milton, Fla. convicted Graves of four counts of manslaughter, a single count of racketeering and five counts of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance. He was charged in connection with the deaths of four of his patients to whom he had prescribed OxyContin. The verdict made him the first doctor in the nation to be convicted of manslaughter or murder for deaths related to the powerful prescription painkiller.
Graves, who is seeking a retrial, testified that he was unaware that patients were abusing the drugs, and that no one would have died if the OxyContin had been taken as prescribed.
"I did have patients who had been former drug addicts in my practice, but I did not actively prescribe the drug to anybody I knew to be active addicts," Graves said on Good Morning America from the Santa Rosa County Jail in Milton, Fla.
Dr. Paul Doering, a professor of pharmacy practice at the University of Florida who testified twice during the trial, had a harsh appraisal of Graves' testimony: "Dr. Graves portrays himself as the victim of overzealous prosecutors, bent on locking up innocent doctors in this country," Doering said. "The only victims in this case were the hundreds of patients to whom he doled out the drugs."
Motion for a Retrial
The doctor's attorney, Ed Ellis, filed a motion this week arguing that jurors failed to understand the evidence and the judge's instructions during the trial. "The verdict of the jury was based upon bias, passion, misinformation and prejudices," Ellis said in court papers.
During the trial, defense attorneys argued that Graves' patients were addicts who lied and exaggerated symptoms in order to get the doctor to write them prescriptions.
But Assistant State Attorney Russ Edgar countered that Graves was fully aware that his patients were abusing the drugs, and that a trip to the 55-year-old doctor's office was a veritable "tailgate party" for such abusers. By running a "prescription mill," the doctor was making $500,000 a year, he argued in court.
Graves said he followed the same procedures that all pain management doctors do. "There were no tailgate parties or anything as described by the prosecution going on outside," he said.
OxyContin's Rapid Spread
OxyContin abuse was first seen in rural areas and the pill was known on the streets as the "pillbilly" or "poor man's heroin." But it has now spread along the Eastern seaboard and into Middle America, where it is no longer considered a cheap high. OxyContin sells for anywhere from $25 to more than $100 a tablet on the streets.
Adam, a former OxyContin abuser who now counsels other addicts described the drug's strong impact in an interview with ABCNEWS.
"There's an immediate warm feeling, a feeling of well-being," Adam said. "I don't want to say godliness, but a feeling that there's nothing I can't handle."
The government estimates about 300 people have died of OxyContin overdoses over the past two years.
Now prosecutors are increasingly going after doctors who operate so called "pill mills," prescribing OxyContin that is medically unnecessary, and sometimes deadly. At least two other doctors — one in Florida, and the other in California — are facing manslaughter charges in connection with OxyContin overdoses. Graves is scheduled for sentencing on March 22.