The combination of the two prescription drugs, which are taken together by
drug abusers, first began appearing on the street about two decades ago and became widespread in Philadelphia about five years ago. Drug experts say the combination is deadly, and officials say it has been responsible for at least 255 deaths in Philadelphia since 1983.
According to the revocation order, published Jan. 30 in the Federal Register, Johnson has "so abused his controlled substance registration that . . . his continued possession of a DEA registration would be inconsistent with the public interest."
The order notes that Johnson was sent notice by registered mail of the proposed revocation Oct. 30 and had not responded. The revocation of the DEA registration, which allows Johnson to prescribe 35,000 drugs controlled by the federal government, becomes effective March 1.
Dennis M. Johnson, who supervises the DEA unit in Philadelphia that investigates the illegal diversion of prescription pharmaceuticals by doctors and pharmacies, said the case illustrates the fragmentation of the federal and state agencies overseeing the medical community and the difficulties involved in prosecuting doctors.
Johnson said Dr. Johnson has been the subject of federal and state investigations involving improper use of prescription drugs since 1969.
Bob Weaver, assistant regional director for the state's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control, said Dr. Johnson was charged with violating state drug laws in the early 1980s and was acquitted in a criminal trial in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.
Although the doctor has never been convicted of any criminal charges involving drugs, the DEA's Johnson said the state investigations in 1980 resulted in his being suspended from participating as a doctor in the state Medical Assistance Program. His petition for reinstatement was denied in 1985, and the suspension was made permanent in September 1986.
In 1985, Johnson said, Dr. Johnson was found by DEA to be the largest prescriber of amphetamines in the United States and became the primary target of the agency's "Operation Quaker State" investigation.
In an effort to end Pennsylvania's reputation as first in the nation in amphetamine usage, the state, with DEA's urging in 1987 sharply restricted amphetamine prescriptions and banned the use of the drug for weight control.
The DEA's Johnson said the investigation of Dr. Johnson showed that, following the 1987 law, he continued improperly prescribing a variety of painkillers as well as the glutethimide and codeine combination.
Johnson said audits of drug sale records showed that Dr. Johnson's prescriptions were commonly filled at 15 to 20 Philadelphia pharmacies. Johnson said that one of the pharmacies, during a five-week period in the summer of 1987, filled 3,413 prescriptions - as many as 400 in one day - from Dr. Johnson, most for glutethimide and codeine combinations.
Johnson said the investigation showed that Dr. Johnson worked three hours a day, five days a week. Based just on the records from this one pharmacy, Johnson said, Dr. Johnson would have had to see about 35 patients an hour to write that many prescriptions.
In addition, Johnson said, undercover agents were easily able to purchase large quantities of the doctor's prescriptions from dealers on the street.