Doctor's opioid prescription conviction tossed after U.S. Supreme Court ruling

FILE PHOTO: Tablets of the opioid-based Hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Portsmouth

By Nate Raymond

(Reuters) -A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the conviction of a doctor accused of unlawfully prescribing addictive opioids in Arizona and Wyoming after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in his favor that made it harder to prosecute such cases.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that under last year's Supreme Court's decision, jurors were wrongly instructed on how to determine whether Shakeel Kahn knowingly prescribed powerful drugs in an illegal manner.

He was at the center of a Supreme Court ruling in January 2022 that raised the bar for what prosecutors must prove to secure convictions of doctors accused of fueling the U.S. opioid crisis by turning their medical practices into "pill mills."

Kahn's lawyer, Beau Brindley, said in a statement Friday's decision "should pave the way to finally ending the practice of unfairly scapegoating doctors for an opiate crisis for which they were never responsible."

Kahn, 56, has been serving a 25-year prison sentence after a jury in Wyoming in 2019 found him guilty of unlawfully distributing prescription medications, operating a continuing criminal enterprise and other charges.

Prosecutors said Kahn from 2011 to 2016 prescribed powerful pain drugs to people in Arizona and Wyoming in exchange for money after performing perfunctory or no examinations. They included one woman who died of an oxycodone overdose.

At trial, Kahn did not contest that patients abused their medications but disputed what his intent was in prescribing them drugs, asserting he had a "good faith" reason to believe his prescriptions were valid.

He took his case to the Supreme Court, which held that prosecutors have to prove that doctors knew they illegally prescribed drugs in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The justices left to the three-judge 10th Circuit panel to decide whether jurors were properly instructed in Kahn's case under that standard.

U.S. Circuit Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote that they were not, saying the instructions "effectively lowered the government’s burden to showing only that Dr. Kahn’s behavior was objectively unauthorized - not that Dr. Kahn intended to act without authorization."

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Bill Berkrot)