PRINCE FREDERICK -- Dr. George J. Weems spent his last day of medical practice at his tiny office with the one examining table and the Norman Rockwell print on the wall. Some patients came for treatment, some to say farewell, some to commiserate with the 81-year-old man about the end of his half-century career.
He had hoped to retire on his own terms and spend his free time cultivating his fields of tobacco and grain. As it turned out, he retired July 1 because a state medical board was about to revoke his license after he was charged with unlawfully prescribing controlled drugs to undercover police three times this year.
The Southern Maryland Narcotics Task Force began investigating Dr. Weems after receiving tips that he was writing many prescriptions without performing examinations and giving them to people who did not need medication. Several pharmacists had stopped filling some of Dr. Weems' prescriptions.
"No question in my mind I got a bum rap," Dr. Weems said at his office last week. He has in his corner scores of supporters among present and former patients, politicians, pharmacists and doctors who say professional pill-seekers and the police took advantage of him.
The case has inspired a petition drive among doctors and a flurry of letter-writing on behalf of Dr. Weems, who in 54 years of practice became a legend in Calvert County -- the kindly country doctor who still made house calls, still charged $15 for office visits, and still remembered visiting patients on horseback in the 1940s when snow drifted deep on back roads.
"It seems there could be better things to do than go after an 81-year-old doctor who is only trying to help people," wrote Dale Norfolk of Owings in a letter to the Calvert Independent newspaper. "I have personally seen Dr. Weems sit for days at our home to make sure we made it through our sickness."
"His professional ethics and his clinical ability have never been questioned in this society," wrote Dr. Joseph S. Fastow, president of the Calvert County Medical Society. "We regret that these charges could not have been handled through the Maryland Bureau of Physician Quality Assurance rather than through the drug enforcement process."
In April, Dr. Weems -- who served three terms as a county commissioner -- was charged with six felonies and six misdemeanors for prescribing painkillers and amphetamines to two undercover Charles County sheriff's deputies working for the Southern Maryland Narcotics Task Force. The charges say Dr. Weems did not examine the officers or record their medical histories.
On two visits to Dr. Weems' office in November and January, an undercover officer complained of headaches and received a prescription first for Vicodin, then for Vicodin extra strength, according to the charges. On a third visit in January, the officer received a prescription for the painkiller Darvocet.
A second officer went along on the third visit, claiming to be a truck driver who was suffering back pain. Dr. Weems prescribed Darvocet-100. When the officer said he also had trouble staying awake, Dr. Weems prescribed Biphetamine. On the third visit, Dr. Weems also prescribed the painkiller Fiorinal for a woman who wasn't even in his office, relying on the word of the officer who told him his girlfriend needed them for headaches.
Dr. Weems said this is the way he's always practiced medicine. "If somebody walks in here, tells me they've got complaints, I'm used to thinking they're valid [and that] it's not somebody trying to set me up," he said.
A year ago, the task force's newly formed prescription drug diversion unit began to subpoena records from Calvert County pharmacies, acting on information about Dr. Weems' prescribing habits.
"There was a pattern developing, and it wasn't a healthy pattern," said Leo Mallard, a pharmacist who co-owns four Calvert County drug stores. He referred to the number of young, apparently healthy men who had come to his stores bearing Medicaid cards and prescriptions from Dr. Weems.
"Why would a healthy young man, 21 years old, be walking around with a medical assistance card?" Mr. Mallard asked. Both Mr. Mallard and Larry Kelley, who runs a pharmacy down the hall from Dr. Weems' office, emphasized that they believe Dr. Weems was the victim of professional pill-buyers taking advantage of a trusting old doctor.
Randy Crispin, chief pharmacist at Safeway in Prince Frederick put it more harshly. He said Dr. Weems' naivete strained his professional responsibility.
"All the druggies knew that for the right price you could get anything you wanted" from Dr. Weems, Mr. Crispin said. He did not imply that Dr. Weems was profiting from this, but said that his low office fees and reputation for taking patients at their word made him an easy mark.
"It got so bad," Mr. Crispin said, that he stopped filling Dr. Weems' prescriptions for anything but antibiotics. Mr. Kelley and Mr. Mallard also said they refused to fill many of Dr. Weems' prescriptions.