By Lynn Arditi
Published April 6, 2014
Jonathan Whitkin is not a doctor, but he has written a lot of prescriptions.
Oxycodone. Hydrocodone. Hydromorphone. Meperidin. Methadone.
He filled his phony scripts at major pharmacy chains — Walgreens, CVS, Rite-Aid — in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. And those are just the ones law-enforcement officials know about.
The forged prescriptions — “hundreds,” he says — fed his addiction to painkillers.
“They would just fill what I brought them,’’ he said. “It’s crazy how easy it is …”
He has been convicted of more than 70 felony drug charges in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and has served more than three years in state prisons.
Now 32 and in recovery, he is articulate and clean-shaven with dark, gelled hair and sunglasses that dangle from the collar of his button-down sports shirt. The son of a middle-class family from the Boston suburbs, he is a walking dictionary of pharmaceuticals, rattling off drug combinations and absorption rates with a salesman’s confidence.
He spent half of his life chasing a high.
“There’s always regret,” he says, eyes downcast. “I try really hard not to look back. It’s always there, as a reminder, that sitting in a prison cell and feeling all alone and in despair is the best-case scenario if I decide to go back to abusing drugs.’’
He pauses. “Worst-case scenario is that I’ll die …”
Prescription drug forgery, law-enforcement officials say, is helping fuel an epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths in Rhode Island and beyond.
Lax prescribing laws, limited tracking systems and resistance among the medical establishment to adopt more stringent safe-prescribing practices have resulted in a system that is far too easily gamed by addicts and their suppliers. (See related story.)
By law, anyone in Rhode Island, regardless of age or history of drug abuse, can walk into a pharmacy and get a prescription for painkillers or other controlled substances filled without so much as showing a valid driver’s license.
Prosecutions of prescription drug fraud cases in Rhode Island during 2012 and 2013 increased 40 percent over the previous two years, a Providence Journal analysis of court data shows.
But experts say the crimes are significantly underreported. Doctors are not required to report patients who misuse their prescriptions. And federal HIPPA laws that protect patients’ privacy rights generally prohibit doctors from testifying in cases involving their patients.
Often by the time the pharmacist determines that a prescription has been forged, the suspect is out the door.
As a boy, Jonathan Michael Whitkin told his parents that he wanted to be a doctor.
Growing up in a middle-class household in Framingham and Ashland, Mass., he’d pore over medical textbooks that belonged to his maternal uncle, a doctor in Florida who died before Jonathan was born.
“I think he knew from memory the PDR (Physicians’ Desk Reference),’’ Whitkin’s mother, Laura Marks, who now lives in Florida, said of her son. “We had great hopes. And he could have been a great doctor …”
But he was also an anxious, introverted child, his father, Robert Whitkin, said. At night, he’d ask his father to check all the windows to make sure they were locked. And he had trouble making friends.
By age 13, Jonathan had his first serious bout of depression. His parents sought help from a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with a major depressive disorder and attention deficit disorder and prescribed antidepressants and Ritalin.
The following year, he had surgery to remove his appendix. In the hospital, he had his first experience with a prescription opioid: Demerol. He liked the way it made him feel.
After that, he invented reasons to get himself admitted to the hospital. “Feigned kidney stones were my favorite,” he said. One visit to the ER, he said, could land a prescription of Vicodin or Percocet.
“You crave the feeling, the mental relief … a sense of ease and comfort, a sense of well being,’’ he said. “That feeling of euphoria was what I chased for the next 15, 17 years.”
By age 14, he had forged his first prescription.
He snuck out of a High Holy Day service at his family’s synagogue in Framingham with a prescription in his suit jacket pocket for 30 Valium. He’d written it on an old prescription pad that had belonged to his late uncle, the doctor. It had a Florida address and an expired Drug Enforcement Administration number, he said, but the pharmacist simply filled it.
During his teens and early 20s, he had a series of surgeries — on his arms, his leg, his stomach — and each visit provided an opportunity for more painkillers.
In hospitals, Whitkin said, he’d sneak into empty operating rooms and grab whatever painkillers he could find. (He was never charged with these thefts.)
He’d gone from popping pills to crushing them, mixing them with sterile water and injecting himself for a more intense high.
If he couldn’t get drugs, he said, he’d have anxiety attacks. He’d pace. His mind raced.
By then, the psychological cravings he’d felt from the age of 14 now engulfed him in a fierce physical addiction.
“You’re so afraid of being sick it fuels you to continue to get more,’’ he said. “But I usually never went without. It was just that easy to get more.”
Police records show he forged copies of prescriptions doctors had written for him, his mother, his sister — even his family’s dog.
Later, he used phony names. Jason Schecter. Adam Cantor. Jonathan Burrill.
During a four-month period in 2004, he filled more than 100 prescriptions at 34 different pharmacies in Massachusetts, according to records compiled by Donna M. Heinz, a retired Massachusetts state police trooper who built that state’s case against Whitkin.
He’d simply copy down the doctor’s name and nine-digit DEA number that is printed on every prescription and use his home computer to create phony ones. He bought pre-paid cellphones and called in prescriptions, posing as a doctor, so the numbers couldn’t be traced.
If he had to wait for a prescription, he said, he’d sometimes leave the store and call a different pharmacy in the same chain and pretend he got the stores mixed up. Then, if the pharmacist couldn’t find his prescription in their computers, he’d know it probably meant someone was on to him, so he wouldn’t go back.
By 2005, he’d been arraigned on 65 charges in Massachusetts, court records show, including forgery, fraudulent use of a DEA number, obtaining drugs by fraud, drug possession and Medicaid fraud. He was 22.
He served about 16 months in the Middlesex House of Correction in Billerica, Mass.
By the time he was released in 2006, his mother had moved to Rhode Island. And he soon followed her.
One Sunday morning in May 2008, Whitkin walked into a Walgreens on Post Road in Warwick and handed the pharmacist a prescription for methadone.
It was his fifth trip to the pharmacy in just over 3 weeks.
On this visit, he carried a prescription he’d created on his home computer using the name, address and DEA number of a doctor in Natick, Mass., who had treated his mother.
The pharmacist examined the prescription and thought it looked identical to several others they’d filled two weeks earlier that were later discovered to be forged. She called the police.
“When I got off the phone,” she later told police, “he was gone.”
In a period of less than two weeks, the Walgreens on Post Road had sold Whiktin 180 pills of methadone and 60 pills of methylphenidate, the generic version of Ritalin, which he’d purchased to counter the sedating effect of the methadone.
In 2009, while he waited at a CVS drive-through window in East Providence for a prescription for methadone for “Adam Cantor,” a security camera recorded the license plate number on his silver Nissan Maxima.
The police tracked him down and arrested him.
At the time, he was working as a salesman at a credit-card processing company and was engaged to be married.
He spent the next 19 months at the Adult Correctional Institutions. His fiancée called off the engagement.
By the time he was released in March 2011, he said, the physical dependence was gone but not “the craving, the mental obsession.”
In June 2012, a Pawtucket police officer on the night shift spotted Whitkin slumped in the driver’s seat of a Hyundai Elantra on the side of the road, headlights shining.
Inside his car, they found cocaine, Adderall, oxycodone, phony temporary driver’s licenses, forged prescriptions and a pre-paid cellphone.
But instead of going back to prison, Whitkin was allowed to enter a year-long program through Rhode Island Drug Court. He spent the next four months at a residential drug treatment program run by The Providence Center, followed by intensive out-patient treatment. He also joined a 12-step program.
A diary entry from when he began his treatment reads:
“My name is Jonathan Michael Whitkin. I am thirty years old. I am an addict of the most severe and desperate variety. My life is unmanageable and out of control. I’m ready for a new way of life…”
These days, Whitkin lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment and sells wireless electronics.
He has put on weight; his eyes are clear and focused. He met a young woman who works in sales through an online dating service and they’ve been together for eight months.
He has spoken about his battle with addiction to students in health classes at East Greenwich High School and volunteered with the school’s drug-prevention program.
He hopes to go back to college to work on his degree. He wants to make a career in business sales.
To stay clean, he said, requires vigilance. He attends 12-step meetings two to three times a week. He has a network of people, many of them former addicts, he can call for support.
Since entering the Drug Court program last October, he has passed 18 court-mandated drug screens. “Jonathan continues to do very well,” Joee Lindbeck, a special assistant attorney general, said at a recent drug-court hearing.
And if his resolve wavers, he re-reads the letters that his mother, father, and his sister wrote him while he was in prison, and the “goodbye letter” he wrote to them in 2004, but never mailed. If he relapsed, he said, he had decided never to speak to them again.
“I didn’t want to hurt them anymore.”
To our readers: The Monday installment of our “Overdosed” series was to be about a young Rhode Island man who began taking prescription painkillers after a high school sports injury and ended up addicted to opioids, including heroin.
After four overdoses and three rounds in rehab treatments, he had been in recovery for almost five years and wanted to share his story so others could learn from it.
Unfortunately, we learned Saturday that he had relapsed and was once again in rehab – an all-too-common path for those who live with this disease.
Because of these circumstances, we are honoring his request not to publish his story.
SUNDAY: For many, the push to treat pain with narcotics has led merely to more pain
TUESDAY: The effort to reduce prescription drug abuse has helped fuel a resurgence of heroin use.
WEDNESDAY: The state’s “Good Samaritan” law protects some, but not all, who seek help for overdose victims.
SUNDAY: Leaders offer their prescriptions for fighting Rhode Island’s drug problem. A mother shares the story of her daughter’s struggle with drugs, which led to her overdose death.