On Groundhog Day, Judge Jeffrey Langton visibly agonized at the bench over how to reconcile 50 letters from supportive patients with 69-year-old Chris Christensen’s November conviction on nine counts of felony endangerment, 11 counts of distributing dangerous drugs and two counts of negligent homicide. In the end, he sentenced the former doctor, whose licence was suspended in 2014, to 10 years in state prison and another 10 years on probation. Langton stayed the sentence pending Christensen’s appeal.
I like Chris Christensen. I was his friend and confidant, and I feel terrible about what happened. After he was charged and we knew the penalties, I saw that he effectively faced a death sentence. But he insisted, as he had in Idaho, where he’d been acquitted twice, that he’d win at trial. “They will see the truth,” he told me one early morning over breakfast at Glenn’s Café in Florence..
Whenever I can, I share my story and reach out to help doctors in tough predicaments. In 1978, misused my DEA privileges to obtain cocaine for personal use. I pleaded guilty to two federal felonies in May 1980. I have reflected upon this through my whole life. Many physicians in the hot seat commit suicide. When I learned about Christensen’s troubles, I contacted him.
The Idaho cases, which involved only a few patients, differed from the 400 counts he initially faced in Montana. He commenced his anarchist medical practice in Victor, then in Florence, with dual faces: the compassionate and caring family physician, and the iconoclastic drug trafficker.
At the end of 2011, Christensen and I had dinner at home home, then again, later, in Corvallis. He was a “marijuana doctor” offering a product everyone wanted. “It’s legal. If they want it, I give it to them,” he said. He told me about his early days in Saudi Arabia and his charitable missions toward the poor, uninsured and underserved, and about his anti-government campaign to eliminate pain and suffering. He seemed sincere as he told me how his father had suffered when he was unable to get pain medication.
Christensen was anti-bureaucracy, anti-DEA, anti-Medicare, anti-establishment, pro-individual rights, anti-insurance. A Pomona College and UCLA medical school graduate, Chris had no residency or training in pain management. In what I saw as his misinformed interpretations of medical science and art, he ministered to many and injured and killed others.
“Why don’t you just practice legitimate medicine at an urgent care center?” I suggested. For errant doctors, a legitimate job can be a path back to professional success. At Las Mas Fina restaurant in Corvallis, between bites of green chilé burritos, he railed against the inhibiting insurance industry, governmental incursions determining medical practice regulations and costs, and record-keeping, a practice he abhorred.
“They meddle with my standard of care,” he claimed. He assured me that I was a bleeding-heart liberal, co-opted by Big Pharma and “them.” Them was the medical establishment.
Christensen’s medical license was suspended after Ravalli County and federal agents raided his Florence practice on April Fool’s Day in 2014. He retained the best lawyers until the money ran out. In a rage over his powerlessness, he referred a friend to physical therapy, doing so as an unlicensed physician just as the Medical Board was considering his reinstatement. Charged in August 2015, Christensen applied to the Office of the Public Defender as indigent, but falsified the application by mis-stating his income and assets, concealing his interest in a plane. He sought a year continuance and a lawyer, and refused a plea agreement. Then $150,000 appeared and I connected him to his new lawyer. “Let’s get you through this,” I said over another meal at Caffé Firenze.
Under a bizarre interpretation of jury nullification, he was sure that the jury, once he explained his work, would exonerate him.
“This is a Jedi mind trick,” I told him. As the trial commenced, I pleaded with him not to testify. He began to see me as a traitor.
Christensen maintains that he did nothing wrong, and that he would “do it again.” This case is tragic. No matter how the state Supreme Court may interprets the statutes on his appeal, its ruling can not overturn the effects of Christensen’s misapplications of the standards of medical care.
Elliott Oppenheim lives in Florence, where he consults in medical-legal litigation including medical malpractice and criminal defense.