They called him a murderer. Saying he ran "a highly sophisticated drug-dealing operation," the California state attorney's office alleged that Dr. Frank Fisher was responsible for up to nine deaths in rural Shasta County. "The theory of their case is that I flooded the community with obscene amounts of OxyContin," he said in a phone interview. "I should have known that people would die."A judge didn't buy it, and dismissed a slew of murder, manslaughter and fraud charges. One of his supposed murder victims died when the car she was in crashed into a tree. Another had stolen pills from one of Fisher's patients.
The doctor recently saw his half-decade criminal odyssey, which included five months behind bars, come to a close when a jury exonerated him of eight misdemeanor counts of Medi-Cal fraud, which amounted to about $150. He still faces possible sanctions from the state medical board. His practice is in ruins. Many of his former pain patients have seen their health drastically deteriorate.
Fisher seems a stark example of how doctors can unwittingly find themselves ensnared in law enforcement's war on drugs when they are just trying to treat their patients' pain. The psychological effect that the legal system exerts on physicians has been dubbed the "Chilling Effect." Doctors and drug warriors who think the syndrome is a myth would do well to examine the Fisher debacle.
The 50-year-old doctor says that at the time of his bust, "Out of 3,000 patients in my practice, 46 of them were on OxyContin."
He says that numerous undercover cops posed as new patients and tried to wrangle scripts for opiates from him. Each attempt failed. Yet California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, just a month on the job when Fisher was arrested, pressed forward and, in a classic grandstanding move, called a press conference to boast that he was saving the rural community from a scourge of highly addictive pain meds.
The Harvard-trained Fisher has a further theory as to why he was so vigorously persecuted. "It comes down to money," he said. "I was taking care of mostly poor people, and even though I was prescribing OxyContin to a small number, it was still very expensive."