Thursday, December 23, 2010

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend

FAMM's offices will be closed starting December 24 and will reopen January 3, 2011, so have a happy holiday season and a very merry New Year!  But before we leave, we'll give you some good and mad reading to send you into the holidays steaming...

Who controls who gets indicted and who doesn't, and for what?  Prosecutors, of course, and one of the methods they use to bring charges is the grand jury system. This disturbing piece from Slate tells the story of Siobhan Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network, which advocates for patient access to pain-relieving treatments and medications.  The problem?
Over the last decade, the federal government has been targeting doctors who treat pain patients with prescription drugs like Percocet and Oxycontin. Advocates like Reynolds argue that doctors who overprescribe painkillers should be disciplined by medical boards if they are sloppy or unscrupulous, not judges and prosecutors. Dumping them into the criminal justice system puts drug cops in the position of determining what is and isn't acceptable medical treatment. One promising treatment of chronic pain known as high-dose opiate therapy, for example has all but disappeared because doctors are too terrified of running afoul of the law to try it.
The article tells an intriguing tale of painkillers, patients, doctors, prosecutors, and the secrecy (and potential abuse) of grand jury proceedings.  The article doesn't discuss sentencing, but it shows how complex painkiller cases can be.  Where's the line between medicine and crime?  How can patients get the treatment they need when the government might prosecute their doctor for giving it?  How can the government go after illegal pill mills without depriving patients of the help that might make their lives livable?

One thing seems clear to us:  mandatory minimum sentences are the worst of all possible worlds for people whose convictions arise out of such a morass of complicated facts and competing interests.  Mandatory minimums are one-size-fits-all sentences, triggered by facts such as the number and type of pills involved.  Unfortunately, those facts tell only a fraction of many, many pain pill stories.  Giving judges sentencing discretion allows them to tailor sentences in pain cases to fit all the facts and circumstances, including the needs of the patient and the intent of the doctor.