A pain-management doctor who prescribed huge quantity of opiates to patients at his northern Virginia clinic was sentenced Friday to nearly five years in prison on federal drug charges.
That's more time than his supporters and some of the jurors were hoping for, but it's still a major victory for him — and for the scientists who testified at the trial. The prosecutors had asked for a life sentence. Prosecutors argued that Hurwitz reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from an illegitimate medical practice.
The sentence is a distinct reduction from the 25-year sentence Dr. Hurwitz was serving after being convicted in 2004 on drug trafficking and other charges. (The conviction was overturned and resulted in a retrial, at which he was convicted of 16 counts of drug trafficking.) One of Dr. Hurwitz's lawyers, Richard Sauber, said that, considering the time already served, Dr. Hurwitz could be free in 17 months.
Authorities claimed Hurwitz crossed the line from doctor to illegitimate medical practice .
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema faulted Hurwitz for ignoring clear signals that some of his patients were obvious drug dealers or abusers, but she also credited him with saving lives with his willingness to prescribe the drugs to patients with debilitating pain.
The judge defended the bulk of Hurwitz's practice as legitimate medicine that saved patients' lives. She said medical literature has increasingly come to support Hurwitz's theories about the propriety of massive drug doses for patients in chronic pain.
William E. Hurwitz's 61, pain-management clinic in a suburb of Washington, D.C., drew patients from across the country. Hurwitz was one of the most outspoken doctors in the United States advocating liberal use of opiates for pain treatment, once appearing on television talk show to tout his views. He said many doctors under treat pain because they ignore patient complaints or they are fearful of harassment by drug-enforcement agents.
Between 1998 and 2002, Hurwitz drew more than 400 patients from 39 states to his clinic in McLean for prescriptions for painkillers such as morphine and OxyContin.
Brinkema said she had read news accounts of the first trial and had seen some of the massive prescriptions Hurwitz had given out, including one patient who was given 1,600 pills a day.
"The amount of drugs Dr. Hurwitz prescribed struck me as absolutely crazy," the judge said.
But after hearing testimony from both sides, "I totally turned around on that issue," Brinkema said. "The mere prescription of huge quantities of opioids doesn't mean anything."
The most serious charges of drug trafficking resulting in death was thrown out by Judge Leonie Brinkema.
The case against Hurwitz was part of a long-running federal, state and local investigation dubbed "Operation Cotton Candy" that netted more than 130 convictions in Virginia and elsewhere for drug trafficking and prescription fraud of Oxycontin and other drugs.