Sydney Morning Herald
Former heroin-addicted psychiatrist fails drug tests
By Kate McClymont
September 21, 2020
Jonathan Smithson – psychiatrist
A psychiatrist, who was struck off the medical register 20 years ago for his drug addiction as well as having sex with a 20-year-old patient and injecting her with heroin, has been suspended for suspected heroin use.
On July 14, Dr Jonathan Smithson, who had been working as a relief registrar at the Psychiatric Emergency Care Centre unit at the Royal North Shore Hospital, had his registration suspended owing to several failed drug tests that indicated heroin and amphetamine use.
According to a report by the Medical Council, when asked to explain the positive tests, Dr Smithson said he may have ingested poppy seeds while eating out or it may have been “by contact with his hairdresser, or by his friend Judy”, both of whom are heroin users.
The psychiatrist voluntarily surrendered his registration in 1999 due to his heroin addiction. In June 2000, the Medical Tribunal of NSW banned Dr Smithson from practising medicine due to professional misconduct and ruled he could not apply to be re-registered for three years.
The tribunal heard that Dr Smithson’s life had spiralled into heroin addiction and depression in 1995 when his pregnant wife, a nurse, died by suicide. He told authorities at the time that he first had sex with a very troubled 20-year-old patient on February 16, 1996, the day he received the coroner’s report on his wife’s death.
However, his patient told authorities the sexual relationship had begun earlier. She also said that, when Dr Smithson found out she was a heroin user, he used her to source the drug for himself.
The Medical Tribunal found that the Newcastle University-trained doctor had facilitated her heroin addiction and that, in February 1997, although he was no longer treating her, he obtained for her an American Express Gold Card in a false name.
The patient also claimed that Dr Smithson had provided her with chloroquine tablets, saying, “You might want these, they will kill you in half an hour.” She reported his behaviour before she died of a heroin overdose in 1998.
On Christmas Eve 1997, the psychiatrist was admitted to Westmead Hospital suffering from a major depressive illness. He had been suspended from his job at the psychiatric unit at Bankstown Hospital due to complaints about his erratic work performance and disinhibited behaviour with patients.
According to the 2000 decision by the Medical Tribunal, Dr Smithson had denied he was a heroin addict but staff at Westmead discovered him in the toilet injecting heroin.
In 2016 he told the Civil and Administrative Tribunal he was now a fit and proper person and had not used illicit drugs since 2013. The tribunal heard that, over the plast 16 years, he had suffered “severe and protracted alcohol and drug problems” and at times had been homeless.
He had never worked, having been on sickness benefits and then the Disability Support pension, a payment for people who cannot work due to a permanent physical, intellectual or psychiatric condition. While on the disability pension he obtained a law degree from Sydney University in 2008 followed by a master’s of health law.
“He did not appear to link his assertion before us that he is a fit and proper person to practise medicine with his purported ongoing entitlement to social security entitlements based on a disability,” the tribunal said. Despite these misgivings, the tribunal allowed him to re-register, subject to extensive conditions including not possessing, supplying, prescribing or taking any “drugs of addiction” and undertaking mandatory drug testing.
On Friday the same tribunal refused Dr Smithson’s bid to be allowed to continue to practise while under investigation over several failed drug tests, the most recent being a hair sample test conducted on April 7, which indicated “exposure to heroin”.
The tribunal upheld the arguments made on behalf of the Medical Council “that the public confidence in medical practitioners would be damaged if they knew that a medical practitioner with a history of drug addiction, who had tested positive for drugs, was permitted to practise whilst the matter was being investigated”.
The tribunal noted that Dr Smithson “has an arguable case” but not a strong one.