Newark, N.J. – New Jersey authorities arrested an internist for allegedly writing fraudulent prescriptions for tens of thousands of painkillers and anxiety pills as part of a drug dealing ring, the state attorney general said Wednesday.
Dr. Craig Gialanella, who has a medical practice in Belleville, N.J., was arrested Monday and charged with second-degree distribution of narcotics, New Jersey Attorney General Christopher Porrino said Wednesday in Newark at a news conference.
In addition to the 53-year-old doctor, 16 alleged leaders and members of a drug ring in Atlantic County were arrested and charged in the case, Porrino said. The attorney general added that the drug ring members distributed high-dose oxycodone pain pills they were able to get because of the prescriptions Gialanella provided to them in exchange for cash. The suspects also allegedly distributed the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, sold under the brand name Xanax.
“Doctors who act like drug dealers and illegally dole out prescriptions for these highly addictive painkillers are nothing more than drug pushers in white coats,” Porrino said. “And they are even more dangerous than a street dealer, because we trust that our doctors will protect our health and not hurt or kill us. Rather than preserving health and protecting life, this doctor allegedly profited by prescribing addiction and death in one of the counties hardest hit by the epidemic of opiate addiction in New Jersey.”
The arrests arose from an investigation into drug trafficking in Atlantic County, which authorities described as one of the areas in the state hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.
Porrino's office said that from Jan. 1, 2016, to Dec. 7, 2016, Gialanella issued 413 prescriptions for approximately 50,000 oxycodone 30-milligram tablets in the names of 30 individuals from the Atlantic County area, including prescriptions for the alleged leaders and members of the drug ring. Frequently the prescriptions were issued in the same name but with varying birth dates.
Second-degree crimes, such as Gialanella is charged with, carry a sentence of five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $150,000, while third-degree crimes carry a sentence of three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
Gialanella is the sixth doctor New Jersey authorities have charged in the least two years in connection with the illegal distribution of painkillers.
Authorities were alerted to Gialanella by an Altantic County pharmacist who grew suspicious over the numerous prescriptions for high-dosage painkillers being written by a doctor some 100 miles away, Porrino said.
The pharmacist noticed that names often were altered to elude detection, as well as other factors that created a red flag.
"That pharmacist no doubt saved lives," the attorney general said.
He added that the investigation into Gialanella continues, noting that the doctor was found to have issued prescriptions for more than 350,000 oxycodone 30 milligram tablets.
"If all those pills were sold on the street for $20 each, they would command more than $7 million," Porrino said.
New Jersey has among the nation’s toughest regulations for painkillers, calling for initial prescriptions to be for only five days, and establishing strict guidelines for doctors to prescribe more. The measure also requires state-regulated health insurers to cover at least six months of substance abuse treatment.
Authorities have ensured that people who have terminal illnesses or suffer from chronic and acute pain will continue to be able to obtain prescription painkillers.
New Jersey is also taking a hard line against doctors who do not exercise caution in prescribing opioids, since data shows that many people who overdose develop an addiction after getting prescription painkillers.
Accidental drug overdoses claimed about 1,600 lives in New Jersey in 2015, the last year for which data is available. That’s four times the number who died from homicide and three times the number killed in automobile accidents.
A majority of those fatal drug overdoses involved prescription painkillers. State officials say that number is certain to be higher for 2016, and perhaps this year, as well.
Authorities described Gialanella as “a doctor located over 100 miles away who allegedly callously cashed in on the epidemic.”
New Jersey has taken action against more than 30 doctors in in the past 12 months, saying they overprescribed painkillers and other narcotics.
New Jersey has pursued criminal charges against some, and imposed sanctions including suspension and taking away the license to practice. The crackdown on unscrupulous doctors is part of a concerted effort in New Jersey to fight the opioid epidemic on multiple fronts – law enforcement, medical and a preventive educational campaign.
Nationwide, 52,404 people died from a drug overdose in 2015, up from 47,055 in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A majority, 63 percent, of the deaths involved opioids.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.