Federal prosecutors launched one of their highest-profile and most controversial assaults in the war against prescription drug abuse recently when they indicted Dr. William E. Hurwitz, a 57-year-old Virginia pain treatment specialist.
Hurwitz was depicted as a “street-corner crack dealer” by federal officials during a court hearing last month. He remains in a Virginia jail, unable to post bail set at $2 million.
Yet Hurwitz is regarded as a pioneer in pain treatment by many doctors, academicians and medical groups, who have decried his prosecution. The case, along with other prominent criminal prosecutions, is putting a chill on legitimate pain treatment by doctors who fear prosecution, reports the Los Angeles Times.
The Hurwitz case has exposed a deepening rift between law enforcement and the medical community over the use of opioids in modern pain treatment. These powerful drugs, including OxyContin, Vicodin and Dilaudid, are based on natural or synthetic opium.
But abuse of these drugs has soared. An estimated 6.4 million Americans illegally used opium-based painkillers in 2001, more than the 4.1 million who used cocaine, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. OxyContin, introduced seven years ago and hailed as a breakthrough drug, has become the most abused pain pill in the nation.
Among the most recent high-profile cases is that of talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who recently admitted he is a pain-pill addict.
Health organizations have criticized the Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies for causing widespread fear among doctors that they can not prescribe opioid painkillers without risking prosecution.