When treating pain brings a criminal indictment

Last month a federal jury in Boston acquitted pain-relief specialist Dr. Joseph Zolot and his nurse-practitioner Lisa Pliner of overprescribing oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl. This prosecution shows why drug warriors need either to clarify the currently indecipherable line between treating pain and unlawfully feeding drug addicts’ habits, or get out of the business of policing and terrorizing physicians. Unfortunately, the government uses legal ambiguity for tactical advantage and will not readily clarify the lines it expects doctors to follow at their peril.

Dr. Zolot and Ms. Pliner were indicted in 2011 for their treatment of six patients between 2004 and 2006. They faced lengthy, consecutive sentences of up to 20 years for each count if convicted. Prosecutors alleged that the two providers recklessly dispensed narcotic painkillers without legitimate medical purpose and were, in effect, dealing. The two pleaded not guilty, maintaining that their prescription practices were proper, and that they were not responsible for their patients’ subsequent abuses. The jurors unanimously agreed.

The jury’s rebuke is not likely to end the harassment of physicians who specialize in pain management. Drug warriors collect the scalps of doctors whom they accuse of violating the laws; they have no concern in aiding in the relief of patients’ suffering.