The United States is experiencing an epidemic of opioid abuse and overdose deaths. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the opioid epidemic has shattered local communities, overwhelmed the health care system, and devastated families across the country in ways that will have profound effects for multiple generations of Americans. Even now, an average of 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Seventy percent of those deaths involve an opioid that a doctor legally prescribed and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the opioid epidemic worse.
Amidst this national crisis, there is a growing sense that those responsible for the epidemic—specifically doctors who overprescribe these drugs—are not being held accountable. In the last decade, criminal charges against doctors have numbered only in the few hundred nationwide. Given the increasing number of opioid overdose deaths nationally, why are charges and convictions of doctors so rare and why have existing legal mechanisms failed to punish the improper prescribing practices? This Article argues that the problem of overprescribing opioids persists because the existing federal law in this area is unclear and lacks uniform application among the states. Additionally, it is the first Article in legal scholarship to offer a concrete solution rooted in common sense and federal criminal law. Specifically, the Article recommends the adoption of a new federal criminal statute aimed directly at those doctors who knowingly violate acceptable health care norms in prescribing opioids. Not only will the novel federal homicide law proposed here deter and punish physicians whose reckless prescription practices cause their patients’ deaths, but it will also provide clarity to doctors engaged in legitimate pain management practices.