Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 | 4:18 p.m.
Federal authorities have indicted a Las Vegas doctor, his unlicensed medical assistant and an alleged conspiring pharmacist in connection with illegally distributing painkillers.
Dr. Henri Wetselaar, 87, David Litwin, 52, and Jason C. Smith, 43, each have been charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. Smith lives in Ira, Mich.
A grand jury returned the indictment for Wetselaar, Litwin and Smith on Sept. 21, and it was unsealed after their arrests Thursday morning.
The indictment also charges Wetselaar with eight counts of distribution of oxycodone, one count of money laundering and 10 counts of structuring money transactions, and Litwin with eight counts of distribution of oxycodone and three counts of making a false statement to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
According to the indictment, the three allegedly conspired to distribute highly addictive painkillers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, Xanax and Soma, to people without a medical need for the drugs.
Wetselaar, a licensed physician in Nevada who claimed to be a pain management specialist, performed house calls and operated a medical practice at 4525 S. Sandhill Road in the eastern valley, officials said.
Wetselaar and his unlicensed medical assistant, Litwin, allegedly directed their patients — including at least two known drug dealers — to Lam’s Pharmacy at 2202 W. Charleston Blvd., where Smith worked as a licensed pharmacist and pharmacy manager, officials said.
Authorities accuse Smith of requesting his staff to fill the unnecessary prescriptions.
Between Sept. 28, 2009, and Aug. 16, 2010, Wetselaar allegedly made 31 cash deposits totaling $263,000 to evade federal laws requiring financial institutions to file reports, according to the indictment.
Nevada’s U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden condemned illegal prescription drug distribution conspiracies, vowing to continue targeting “pill mills and pharmacist co-conspirators.”
Officials have filed federal charges against 70 people for illegally distributing addictive prescription painkillers since January 2010, Bogden said.
Bogden noted that during the past 10 years, drug-induced deaths related to prescription drugs have more than doubled across the country, outpacing the number of gunshot deaths.
In Clark County alone, the coroner’s office deals with more prescription drug-related deaths than those related to methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine use combined, Bogden said.
“This problem affects individuals throughout all sectors of our community,” Bogden said. “No one is immune, and no one is untouched by this growing drug problem.”
Kent Bitsko, director of the Nevada High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said the prescription drug abuse problem often morphs into heroin abuse, as abusers ultimately seek a less expensive opiate drug to get their fix.
“We have a whole new crop over the last five or six years of heroin addicts,” Bitsko said, “whereas, heroin in the West, while it had not gone away, had not been a significant problem.”
Bitsko said authorities increasingly have seen teenagers addicted to painkillers, often obtained from parents' or grandparents’ medicine cabinets and distributed at “cocktail parties,” where pills are thrown together in bowls and consumed.
Two operations at local high schools targeting heroin use revealed that most teens’ drug abuse began with painkillers, Bitsko said.
Southern Nevada law enforcement agencies have developed a four-pronged approach to crack down on prescription drug abuse, starting with education. A Prescription Drug Summit will be held Monday at the South Point.
Other efforts include prescription drug monitoring programs, proper medicine disposal and enforcement, Bogden said.
The proactive approach stems from officials’ fear that prescription drug abuse could take a stronghold in Las Vegas following large law enforcement operations in other parts of the country, Bitsko said.
“It’s extremely difficult when you’re going after pharmacies and doctors because our society looks highly on them — and we should,” he said. “They’ve done an awful lot and saved a lot of people, but some of them are going outside the law and prescribing drugs to people they shouldn’t be.”
Wetselaar and Litwin appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen on Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas, while Smith appeared before a judge in Detroit.
If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine for each of the drug conspiracy and drug distribution counts, officials said.
Wetselaar could face up to 10 years in prison on each money laundering and structuring count and fines between $250,000 and $500,000. Litwin faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each false statement count.