Legal Pearl

US Supreme Court Raises Bar for Prosecuting Physicians Who Prescribe Opioids for Pain


    Ann W. Latner, JD

    The Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. §841, makes it a crime “except as authorized... for any person knowingly or intentionally... to manufacture, distribute, or dispense... a controlled substance. A prescription for a controlled substance is only ‘authorized’ when a doctor issues it for a legitimate medical purpose... acting in the usual course of his professional practice.”

    In two lower court trials, two physicians were accused of prescribing opioid pain medicine in violation of the Controlled Substances Act. Their prosecutors claimed the physicians’ prescriptions were not written for a legitimate purpose in the usual course of professional practice. The physicians argued that the prescriptions were authorized and that even if they were not, they had not “knowingly or intentionally” deviated from the standard practice. The physicians were convicted, found to have violated the Controlled Substances Act, and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and they appealed the cases up to the Supreme Court.

    Are the physicians at fault?

    (Discussion on next page)