From the archives: Supreme Court Explores Doctor Intent in “Pill Mill” Criminal Prosecutions Under the Controlled Substances Act

Previously published on June 24, 2022
Attorney & Author HeadshotBy George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

Physicians and other healthcare professionals usually have broad scope to prescribe most drugs, including potentially dangerous ones. However, over the past decade, many limits, often imposed arbitrarily through criminal prosecutions or drastic administrative sanctions, have been used to impose limits.

The question was recently put before the U.S. Supreme Court as to how far a physician’s judgment can be allowed to go in the context of prescribing controlled substances before it becomes criminal. This was in the context of criminal prosecution of a physician for allegedly over-prescribing.

On March 1, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court confronted the question of whether good faith is a defense for a doctor criminally prosecuted for unlawful distribution of controlled substances. For nearly 90 minutes, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both sides, struggling with the exact wording of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the clarity of the relevant federal regulation, and the proposition that a doctor who lacked subjective criminal intent could nevertheless go to jail for a substantial period of time, up to life imprisonment.

The two physicians whose cases are being considered are Xiulu Ruan, who was sentenced to 21 years in prison in 2017 for allegedly running a “pill mill,” and Shakeel Kahn, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2019 for crimes including drug distribution of controlled drugs resulting in the death of a patient. The court consolidated their cases for the Supreme Court’s hearing.

Controversial Legal Standards Used to Convict.

The legal standard in question centers heavily on a disputed sentence in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) that says, “Except as authorized by this subchapter, it shall be unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally” to distribute controlled substances. The central question is how juries should assess the intentions of a doctor accused of prescribing narcotic painkillers outside “the usual course of his professional practice.”

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) argued that the criminal intent standard is an objective one — or an “honest effort” to comply with professional norms. On the other hand, the attorneys for the doctors who were prosecuted argue that the standard must be subjective; that is did the doctor subjectively believe they were not prescribed for a legitimate medical purpose. This distinction gives rise to whether there is merely a violation of regulation as opposed to a crime having been committed.

Throughout the oral arguments, various justices seemed to cast doubt on whether deviating from mainstream standards on opioid prescribing is sufficient to throw physicians in jail, which could result in years or life in prison. In some states, this might even result in a death sentence, pretty drastic for what would otherwise be medical negligence.

How This Ruling Will Impact Future Prosecutions.

This case and the upcoming ruling raise alarms for healthcare providers and advocates for pain patients. Many fear that the ruling could enable even more aggressive prosecutions of opioid prescribers. They warn that such a decision could discourage doctors from providing opioids even when they’re fully warranted. In addition, the outcome could affect civil litigation accusing large pharmaceutical companies of recklessly selling prescription narcotics.

After hearing the oral arguments, the Supreme Court seemed likely to demand more substantial proof of intentional wrongdoing when the DOJ prosecutes opioid prescribers. A decision from the High Court is expected by late June 2022. The cases are Ruan v. U.S., case number 20-1410, and Kahn v. U.S., case number 21-5261, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

We will definitely keep you posted on the outcome of this case.

Click here to read one of my blogs about controlled substances and compliance.

Contact Health Law Attorneys Experienced in the Representation of Health Professionals and Providers.

The Health Law Firm and its attorneys have represented physicians, pharmacists, nurses, clinics, dentists, pharmacies, health facilities, and other health care providers in different cases involving allegations of over-prescribing narcotics and pain medications. These include criminal investigations by local police and law enforcement authorities, investigations by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), complaints against professional licenses by the Florida Department of Health, investigations, and prosecutions by the Medicaid Fraud Control Units (MFCU), and other types of cases. Having attorneys familiar with the medical standards of care and guidelines for prescribing narcotics and having access to expert medical and pharmacy professionals who can testify as expert witnesses in such cases is also crucial. We have represented professionals in administrative investigations and administrative hearings at both the state and federal levels.

To contact The Health Law Firm, please call (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free (888) 331-6620 and visit our website at


Overley, Jeff. “High Court Poised To Make DOJ’s Job Harder In Opioid Cases.” Law360. (March 1, 2022.) Web.

Gluck, Abby. “In opioids “pill mill” case, justices grapple with physician intent.” SCOTUS Blog. (March 2, 2022). Web.

Joseph, Andrew. “Fight over opioid prescribing — and when it turns criminal — heads to Supreme Court.” STAT News. (February 28, 2022). Web.

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave. Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620

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