U.S. Supreme Court sides with doctors challenging opioid convictions

By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) - The US Supreme Court on Monday gave another chance to two doctors found guilty of abusing their licenses amid the US opioid epidemic to write thousands of prescriptions for addictive painkillers to challenge beliefs.
The judges ruled 9-0 in favor of Xiulu Ruan and Shakeel Kahn, who appealed their convictions arguing that their trials were unfair because the jury didn't have to consider whether the two doctors had "good faith" reasons, their numerous believing opioid prescriptions were medically valid.
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Liberal Judge Stephen Breyer, writing for the court, said once defendants produce evidence they were authorized to dispense controlled substances such as opioids, prosecutors must show they knew they were acting in an unauthorized manner.
The judges returned the two cases to federal appeals courts, which had previously confirmed their convictions for further trials, where prosecutors can argue that errors in their jury instructions were harmless mistakes.
The United States has been battling an opioid epidemic for more than two decades that has claimed the lives of more than half a million Americans, according to federal health officials.
States have sued drug companies and pharmacies to hold them liable, but another key element in the public health crisis has been the role of doctors in prescribing large quantities of the highly addictive painkiller.
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Some doctors have been accused of turning their medical offices into "pill mills" - routinely prescribing controlled substances without medical necessity and outside the bounds of normal professional practice.
There has been disagreement in lower courts over the standard by which doctors can be convicted of violating a federal law called the Controlled Substances Act, which regulates numerous substances, including painkillers such as opioids, for prescribing outside the bounds of professional practice.
Ruan, who practiced in Alabama, and Kahn, who practiced in Arizona and then Wyoming, were sentenced in separate criminal trials to 21 and 25 years in prison, respectively.
Prosecutors said Ruan operated a clinic with a business partner in Mobile that issued nearly 300,000 prescriptions for controlled substances from 2011 to 2015 and was a top U.S. prescriber of certain fentanyl-based pain relievers.
Prosecutors said he accepted kickbacks from drugmaker Insys Therapeutics Inc to prescribe patients a fentanyl spray. Insys founder John Kapoor was later convicted of conspiring to bribe doctors, including Ruan, into prescribing the drug and getting insurers to pay for it.
According to prosecutors, Kahn regularly sold prescriptions for cash and unlawfully prescribed large quantities of opioid pills, resulting in at least one patient dying from an overdose.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham)

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