Meet The Judge Who Is Trying To Solve The Opioid Epidemic

By Kelly Burch 03/08/18

“My objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis and to do it in 2018.”

Federal Judge Dan Polster
Federal Judge Dan Polster Photo via YouTube

Federal Judge Dan Polster is faced with a daunting task: to preside over more than 400 lawsuits brought by municipalities across the country against manufacturers and distributors of opioids. However, the human aspect of these lawsuits is not lost on Polster, even as the legal arguments pile up. 

“The stakes, in this case, are incredibly high,” the judge told The New York Times recently. “Any thinking person should feel terrible about the situation we’re in.”

Polster has a friend whose daughter died from an opioid overdose, so he understands the ways that families around the county are suffering. When he met with parties to the lawsuit in January, he reminded all sides that the death toll from opioid addiction would continue to climb while they argued their cases. 

“About 150 Americans are going to die today, just today, while we’re meeting,” he said at the time. During that meeting, he said he would encourage all parties to reach a settlement that would make a real difference for the nation: from people who are addicted to opioids, to the first responders dealing with them on a daily basis, to cities and towns that have stretched their budgets in order to deal with the crisis. 

“My objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis and to do it in 2018,” he said

More recently, Polster conceded that he is in the unusual position of using the court’s power to address a social issue. “The judicial branch typically doesn’t fix social problems, which is why I’m somewhat uncomfortable doing this,” he said. “But it seems the most human thing to do.”

When a reporter suggested that critics call this an arrogant and unrealistic undertaking, Polster was not offended. “I think that’s a fair assessment,” he said. “But I won’t fault myself for attempting this.”

In addition to working as a federal judge, Polster helps teach a class on mediation at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. During that class, he told law students that compromise can often be more effective than litigation. 

“It’s almost never productive to get the other side angry. They lash out and hurt you and themselves. I try to get the sides to think it through as a problem to solve, not a fight to be won or lost,” he said. 

This approach might be working. Just 10 days after a hearing with Polster, Purdue Pharma announced that it would stop marketing OxyContin to doctors. Although some said that the change was too little too late, others saw it as a sign that Polster’s approach could work. 

“This is a stunning about-face by Purdue, which has long contended that it has not influenced physician education with its drug reps,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, a Stanford addiction specialist who spoke at the federal hearing. “I think the overwhelming pressure from Judge Polster, not to mention the court of public opinion, led to this radical reversal.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.