It was a Tuesday in early November when federal agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration paid a visit to the office of Dr. David Bockoff, a chronic pain specialist in Beverly Hills. It wasn’t a Hollywood-style raid—there were no shots fired or flash-bang grenades deployed—but the agents left behind a slip of paper that, according to those close to the doctor’s patients, had consequences just as deadly as any shootout.
On Nov. 1, the DEA suspended Bockoff’s ability to prescribe controlled substances, including powerful opioids such as fentanyl. While illicit fentanyl smuggled across the border by Mexican cartels has fueled a record surge in overdoses in recent years, doctors still use the pharmaceutical version during surgeries and for soothing the most severe types of pain. But amid efforts to shut down so-called “pill mills” and other illegal operations, advocates for pain patients say the DEA has gone too far, overcorrecting to the point that people with legitimate needs are blocked from obtaining the medication they need to live without suffering.
One of Bockoff’s patients who relied on fentanyl was Danny Elliott, a 61-year-old native of Warner Robins, Georgia. In March 1991, Elliott was nearly electrocuted to death when a water pump he was using to drain a flooded basement malfunctioned, sending high-voltage shocks through his body for nearly 15 minutes until his father intervened to save his life. Elliott was never the same after the accident, which left him with debilitating, migraine-like headaches. Once a class president and basketball star in high school, he found himself spending days on end in a darkened bedroom, unable to bear sunlight or the sound of the outdoors.
“I have these sensations like my brain is loose inside my skull,” Elliott told me in 2019, when I first interviewed him for the VICE News podcast series Painkiller. “If I turn my head too quickly, left or right, it feels like my brain sloshes around. Literally my eyes burn deep into my skull. My eyes hurt so bad that it hurts to blink.”