By the time you read this, I hope you will be savoring fond memories of a Thanksgiving spent with those you hold dear…while we brace ourselves for the upcoming holidays, which seem to come faster each year. Keep in mind that some among us are facing painful milestones as holidays remind them of the void created by the absence of a loved one who has passed away…include them in your festivities, they may be in need of a change in traditions this year.
A number of people have asked why I have chosen to focus on the “Creating an Improved Tomorrow” (C-IT) heroin/opioid awareness project as your Bar President. Some are concerned that it might detract from other worthwhile projects to which the Bar has committed to in the past. Fair questions. The answer…it is a timely issue that needs attention. The Governor has made it a priority. The President has made it a priority. We have to do something. NOW. Before it touches our families and friends, if it hasn’t already. As lawyers, most of us have witnessed unlikely clients committing dangerous or undesirable acts you never would have dreamed they were capable of doing. As a result, we are more aware of so many possible human frailties, including our own. As lawyers, we have the unique ability to obtain reliable information from legal authorities and resources. We also have the skills to disseminate this information to the general public in a responsible manner. Knowledge is power. We can help empower the public with accurate information that will enable parents to protect their children, friends to protect friends and students to help other students. Working to eliminate naïveté, ignorance and even arrogance with regard to the very real threat of the opioid epidemic is worthwhile means of serving the public.
Between December 2014 and June 2015, I went to six funerals for people who died of opioid overdoses. To witness the pain their families suffered was so heart wrenching it was indescribable. When I returned from one of these funerals, I was asked what the cause of death was, and the response was awkward silence. I know they were thinking “how does she know someone who would die of a drug overdose, much less a heroin overdose?” Quite frankly, I understand their reaction. That might have been my response six months earlier. I had never known someone who died of a drug overdose, or at least I didn’t think I did. As I learned more and began posting things about the lingering stigma and how it exacerbates the crisis while it isolates the addicts and their families; people reached out from different chapters of my life sharing stories of how their brother, sister or parent died years before…something they had been ashamed to speak of before. They seemed so relieved to be able to discuss their loss, after keeping it to themselves for so long for fear of being judged or hearing their loved one disparaged. The families of these six young people were families much like my own, I realized this could happen to anyone. Anyone. At any age. There but for the grace of God go I…and I had been so naïve about prescription drugs and the risks of addiction. Fifteen years ago, my children had their wisdom teeth pulled and I filled the Dr.’s script without question, never thinking about the fact it was a potentially addictive opioid. For someone with a predisposition towards addiction to opioids, it just takes one experience to get hooked. The public needs to be informed so they can be their own advocates.
I should have known better, my family has dealt with addiction. My once beautiful, brilliant sister is a chronic alcoholic. She is currently homeless by choice. She has been out of touch for years at a time, she was nowhere to be found when my father died. The only time my parents could be certain she was safe was when she was in jail. No parent should ever be relieved that their child is in jail. When my estate planning clients hesitate to say they need to make special provisions for a certain family member, they are embarrassed as if they are the only ones with a family member who has an addiction or mental health problem. I am very candid with them about my sister and they relax and we figure out a way to provide for their family member without enabling them. I tell them that I am beginning to believe that what we perceive as “normal” is really the exception and those of us who have a family member who has these kinds of issues is really the norm; so we need stop beating ourselves up and just deal with it.
Sometimes I think it was divine intervention that the time I happen to be President of the Bar coincided with the time when I would attend so many funerals related to overdoses. As I literally ached for these surviving families, I wanted to do something constructive to support them. Being President of the Bar opened a few doors, and I am grateful for the responses. I hosted a meeting of police, fire and rescue, county and private rehab services, the SAO, Judge Rupp and Drug Court staff, faith based groups, and parents of addicts at Oakdale Emory Church on February 27, 2015. We expected 10 people and at least 35 attended. I learned that there were 578 deaths due to overdoses in Maryland last year. More people died from opioid prescription drug or heroin overdoses than from car accidents or from homicides in the State of Maryland in 2014. Further, AARP reported that there has been a 700% increase in opioid prescription drug overdose deaths among Americans aged 55-64 between 1993 and 2012, the equivalent of 46 deaths per day in the U.S. We need to be proactive, to insist that our physicians provide alternatives to opioid painkillers for ourselves and our children. No one is immune.
Three of the parents who lost a child attended the February meeting, and bravely told their respective stories. Judge Marielsa Bernard met my friends Renee Benzel and Jimena Ryan at this meeting. Renee, Marielsa and Jimena, have since created a support group with Beth Kane Davidson, Director of Suburban Hospital’s Addiction Treatment Center. They courageously shared their stories of the tragic loss of Renee’s son, Alex, Marielsa’s daughter, Kate and Jimena’s son, Casey, in the November edition of Bethesda Magazine. Their hope is that by increasing awareness, “no other mothers join this mothers club”. As the article states, most heroin users do not start out using heroin for recreational purposes. They start out using a prescription opioid painkiller, get addicted and then turn to heroin when they cannot get any more refills of the prescription. The fastest growing group of addicts are athletes suffering sports injuries.
Since then, I have witnessed countless acts of generosity, kindness and compassion by our members, our judges, prosecutors, police, MCPS and so many more in connection with our efforts. These people and entities have been hard at work on this crisis long before we got involved, and we are simply backing them up where we are able and needed. The Bar heroin/opioid/synthetic drug committee has four objectives:
1) Education: via the C-IT program and the Speaker’s Bureau
2) Drug Court: Perpetuation and support thereof
3) Legislative: Support the Legislature in expanding the Good Samaritan Law and strengthening the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program
4) Medical: Seeking support for longer term rehabilitation and effective treatment
The C-IT program, originally created by Past President Richard Melnick three years ago, allowed us to hit the ground running. The C-IT program is an ideal means for the Bar to address the current crisis the community is facing in a timely manner, and can change topics from year to year. The first year students studied the Trayvon Martin murder case and the issue of reasonable self-defense. The second year the subject was cyberbullying, the culminating event was a mock trial with Judge Eric Johnson presiding. This year the focus is the Heroin/Opioid/Synthetic Drug Crisis and the Good Samaritan Law which the students have coined “Speak Up, Save a Life”.
This C-IT education program is co-chaired by Steve Chaikin and Damie Adegbuyi. We have expanded the yearlong school academic program to a total of 5 schools, Blair, Springbrook, Northwood, Poolesville and Damascus High Schools. As of press time, we will have spoken to over 3500 students since school started in September. We spent countless hours preparing a power point presentation that we have put on flash drives for our speakers. We have also created a Speakers Bureau so that bar members can use the power point presentation to speak at other schools, religious organizations, parent associations, boys and girls clubs, scout groups, community or civic groups or sports teams. If you wish to speak or facilitate a connection to a group that would like to have us speak, please get in touch with me at email@example.com, Steve at Stephen.Chaikin@montgomerycountymd.gov or Damie at Damie.Adegbuyi@gmail.com. If nothing else, if we can make students aware that the police would rather see a call made to save a life rather than make an arrest, our goal will be achieved. We hope to spread our message far and wide!
I was fortunate to witness Assistant State’s Attorney, Steve Chaikin speak to the senior class of almost 800 students at Blair High School. The students actually listened, they were genuinely engaged as was evident by the questions asked, and one young woman shared a story of her friend who died after something was added to his drink, moving many to tears. As we left, a young man handed Steve a handwritten two page letter. Clearly Steve’s passionate message reached people, it certainly got to me. Steve’s energy and conviction is well received. He is making a difference. I hope the rest of the speakers fare as well.
Many, many, thanks to those of you who have generously contributed to the C-IT program, these funds will cover the cost of copies, public service awards, printing, certificates, transportation to the courthouse and a luncheon for the students following the culminating events.
If we haven’t already had our December Bar luncheon as you read this, please come and hear from Judges Rupp and Quirk about the goals and accomplishments of Drug Court. They will be joined by Renee Benzel, my friend and neighbor who lost her 28 year old son Alex to a heroin overdose, she has a PhD in Pharmacology. She has joined us in the past when speaking to regional hospital CEO’s on the subject of overprescribing and the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
A few people who had initially questioned my focus on the heroin crisis have since known someone who lost a family member to an overdose. I hope you never know someone who loses the battle to opioids or any other addictive substance for that matter. Addiction to opioids is like cancer, it is life threatening and almost impossible to overcome. Sometimes the first time is the last time. Unless we make huge strides in dramatically limiting prescription of opioid painkillers, it is only a matter of time before someone you know will be touched by this epidemic. Secondly, if it becomes common knowledge that the police will not arrest a user who calls for emergency assistance for someone who appears to have overdosed, many lives will be saved. Our hope is that by arming our members with factual information, we can impart our knowledge and help you to help others. The better informed people are, the better choices they can make. If our efforts save one life, it will have been worthwhile. If you wish to join our efforts, we welcome your participation.
Wishing you and yours good health and true happiness this holiday season and in the new year. Peace and blessings to all.
Lynn Caudle Boynton