Doctor acquitted in opioid case involving thousands of pills

A Nova Scotia doctor accused of fraud and unlawful possession of powerful narcotics has been acquitted of all charges.

Dr. Sarah Jones faced three counts of fraud, one count of unlawful possession of oxycodone, and one count of fraudulently drawing a document related to prescriptions in the name of a patient, Merle Chase.

The Tantallon, N.S., doctor had been on trial in provincial court in Bridgewater. On Friday, Judge Timothy Landry found Jones not guilty. 

The prosecution had alleged Jones wrote prescriptions for tens of thousands of opioid pills involving a single patient, Merle Chase, over a matter of months.

Judge’s reasons for the acquittal

In his decision, Landry said he was left with reasonable doubt and had to acquit Jones. 

“I have concluded that other rational conclusions other than the guilt of the accused exist,” read the decision. 

He outlined a number of aspects of the case that cast doubt on Jones’s guilt.

Landry said it was clear to the court that Chase was a difficult patient, “prone to emotional outbursts and it appeared as if he could be very demanding, especially if he was suffering some pain.”

According to the decision, Landry also said while he believes testimony that Jones prescribed many thousands of opioids to Chase, the Crown failed to present an “expert opinion as to the medical appropriateness of the prescriptions that were prescribed by the accused for Mr. Chase.”

He also said the court was not presented with testimony indicating the amount prescribed to Chase was not medically necessary. 

Ont Opioid Prescribing 20170822

The prosecution had alleged Jones wrote prescriptions for tens of thousands of opioid pills involving a single patient, Merle Chase, over a matter of months. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

Landry also said, based on the evidence, it was a “reasonable possibility” that Chase’s roommate was diverting his opiates.

“Mr. Chase indicated that visitors would attend at the residence, they would enter his room while in the company of Norma Wentzell. When they left the residence, Mr. Chase told the court that he knew that they had gone through his medications as his pills were not in the same order in his pill box,” said Landry.

Chase also told the court that Wentzell was “routinely involved in matters between himself and Dr. Jones and in matters involving his prescriptions.”

Finally, Landry said after looking at all the evidence he concluded that Jones was a “young relatively inexperienced doctor trying to deal with a difficult patient who, by all appearances had nowhere else to turn and who was suffering from a number of different significant medical issues.”

Jones ‘very pleased’ with decision

Crown attorney Josh Bryson said the decision is “lengthy” and it will take time to go through and decide how the Crown will proceed.

As with any case, the Crown now has 25 days to review the decision and consider an appeal.

“Ultimately, the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a high standard, and ultimately Judge Landry was not satisfied that the Crown had met its burden and entered an acquittal accordingly,” said Bryson.

Jones did not speak to the media following the decision, but her lawyer Stan MacDonald addressed reporters.

“It’s been a long road, but the decision is a solid decision, and she’s very pleased with the decision,” he said.

Volume of pills ‘ridiculous’ 

The charges were laid in 2016 after a police investigation into Jones’s activity between January 2014 and August 2015. She originally faced charges of drug trafficking, but those were withdrawn by the Crown.

Dr. Gus Grant, registrar and CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia, said Jones remains under an interim suspension until she can convince the investigation committee that it “need not be in place.”

“The question before the investigation committee will be quite simply whether the care and conduct of Dr. Jones met the standard of the profession — whether the care and conduct constitutes professional misconduct or constitutes conduct unbecoming a physician,” said Grant.

The trial heard Jones would often collect the pills from the pharmacy and take them to the patient. Bridgewater Superstore pharmacy manager Melinda Kerwin testified during the trial that no other doctors did that. Kerwin also said the volume of pills was “ridiculous” for a single patient.

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