Legal Prescription

ALRT's Exploration of Addiction, Law, and Medicine

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December Advocate of the Month: Harry Matz

[Each month, the Addiction Legal Resource Team at Penn State’s Dickinson Law recognizes an exceptional individual for their contributions to the addiction treatment community. The individual recognized as Advocate of the Month for the month of December is Harry Matz, senior trial lawyer at the Department of Justice. Mr. Matz has worked at the Department of Justice since 1991 as part of the Criminal Division. His time at the Criminal Division has been at the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Section for the entirety of his career, aside from a brief stint at the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia. Before his time at the Department of Justice, he worked for five years as an Assistant Attorney General at the Maryland Office of the Attorney General in the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene and at Melnicove, Kaufman, Weiner & Smouse, P.A as an associate. We are thankful for inspiration from our honored advocates and from Dickinson Law’s Inside Entrepreneurship Blog.]

By Evan Marmie

I sat on the shuttle and watched as the city flew by. Traffic was lighter than usual in the nation’s capital and a ride was always picturesque. The ride passed the Capitol building and museum after museum before eventually depositing me at the imposing limestone façade of the Department of Justice. I checked my belongings as I looked towards the art deco doors. Inside was where I was to interview our December Advocate of the Month, Harry Matz. As I approached, I showed security my identification card at a checkpoint just before the entrance. I walked inside and was buzzed through the cage doors. 

Pale sunlight filtered in through the Department of Justice’s windows as I walked down a rose-colored granite hallway. On each side of me were displays of decades of accomplishments by lawyers who had walked those very halls before me. The light was just enough to brighten the antechamber. I walked the halls as I waited for Harry to arrive. My eyes traveled to the ceiling, which was richly decorated with filigreed portraits in the frame of impressive crown molding.

 I stepped out into the courtyard and watched the lawyers ferry in and out of the building. They wheeled suitcases and spoke the travel that came with the job. In the windows facing me, department workers were typing away in their offices. Many stood, some sat, but all worked dutifully. It was impressive to see the cogs of a bureaucracy in motion.

Five minutes before the appointed time of the interview, I stepped into the office where Harry and I would meet. The office belonged to Peter Carr, a twelve-year veteran in the department. His job was to oversee interviews and manage public relations for the Criminal Division, even profiles honoring the department employees. He welcomed me into his office. The office was decorated with awards from years past, but the furniture was plain. A mahogany desk topped with dual monitors, a red couch, and three other simple wooden chairs sat in the room already prearranged for the interview. We exchanged brief pleasantries before Harry arrived.

Harry walked in just a few moments later with both coat and sweater. He placed his coat aside and settled on the couch. He had a humorous demeanor with which I was familiar. Harry was well-known for such a demeanor around the office. As we sat down to begin, however, his demeanor shifted to one much more serious. 

Harry’s start was in private practice. As a graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Harry’s beginnings were all but assuredly a start in private practice, “Private practice was the way to go,” he said, “everything else was window dressing,” He was in a firm for years, but ultimately found the work to be less rewarding with time, “I was around your age and frankly the last thing I wanted to do was spend precious free time hanging around golf courses with guys who are my age now.” 

He was a Marylander by birth. His firm was located in Baltimore, just down the street from where he worked after: the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. He found his place at the office as an assistant attorney general for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. His time there was spent working with several administrative boards and in complex administrative litigation over “certificates of need” for health care expansion.  

The professional licensing and disciplinary board work was a juggling act, “Board of pharmacists, board of morticians, psychologists, podiatrists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, and so forth, at least 10 different professional boards,” he explained and then expanded on his greatest achievements, “Honestly, just keeping the boards from squabbling with each other over their respective scopes of practice and other matters was my biggest achievement,” He laughed a bit.  On the complex administrative side, he represented the Staff of the Health Resources Planning Commission. “It was a lot of competing interests. I did do a big case with a hospital once,” He explained, “Maryland has an ‘all-payer system’ for our healthcare…so whenever something happens, everyone is invested. If a hospital was allowed to build a new wing, that was a big deal because the cost would eventually be spread across all payers into the system.”

After five years in the Maryland public space, Harry decided to transition into a federal practice, “I felt that I had done as much as I could in public sector in Maryland and I wanted a bigger stage,” He shrugged, “The natural step looked like the DOJ, being the nation’s litigators, so I figured why not give it a shot,” He reflected on how he came into his position, “My work with the board of pharmacy and also the Maryland Division of Drug Control — which equates to the Diversion Division at the DEA — turned out to really be my “in.” I was able to parlay that into a job.”

At the start, Harry did not choose exactly what his path in the DOJ would be, “You end up specializing in what is needed but not covered at the time you arrive,” he expanded on his own beginnings, “What was really the rage was precursor chemicals…that’s what everyone was focused on. So I became a subject-matter expert in precursor chemicals.” 

At the beginning, the work was around the transportation of these chemicals to labs outside the country. He also acted as support for litigation teams across the country, a task which he has continued performing for years. His major victories had been against pharmacies and he assisted in reaping millions of dollars into the government’s coffers from their misconduct. 

His expertise had him eventually settle into a policy-oriented position. It was in policy that Harry found himself in the middle of one of the biggest addiction and drug crises in the 21st century, “Then, the meth crisis hit and precursor chemicals became a whole different ball of wax.” It was one of the first times that the drug problem was homegrown. Rooted in neighborhoods, towns and cities across the United States, meth production hit an all-time high. Precursor chemicals in the form of ephedrine became a growing concern. Harry spoke about the enforcement effort, “The thought that a company that made a product that was being diverted to meth labs could be culpable, and the individuals who ran the company, was foreign to judges and juries.”

The answer seemed more and more a question of policy, not enforcement, “I became a subject-matter expert in the regulatory edge of controlled substances. (It’s) where the bad guys and the civil violations happen…where the criminal side interfaces with the law,” Policy answers to the methamphetamine crisis began to form. The push for a policy solution culminated in a legislative series of bills aimed at the issue until Congress arrived at the final product, “There was a chain of laws and regulations. Each one put a dent in the meth problem…the succession of legislation culminated in the CMEA, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act. I’m glad to say I had something to do with that…it changed everything.” 

The CMEA created the policy of keeping pseudoephedrine behind drug counters and making people sign at the counter to purchase, “It stopped people from going in and just clearing the shelves.” Harry grinned as he spoke about the process, “Before the more definitive legislation, lobbyists were successful in convincing congressmen that nobody would take the time to pop pills out of blister packs. Within weeks or months, they found homemade presses in labs,” He shook his head, “It took far too long…I shared my belief from early on that we have got to just get this stuff out of open shelves.” He reflected, “Now we have it (the CMEA). I’m sure we’ve saved lives, saved the environment.” His brow raised and he smirked, “I still haven’t gotten an award for that.” He chuckled, “But I have gotten an award for things I played a smaller part in, so it all works out.”

As the question of opioids and precursor chemicals began to pop up, Harry found his own work shifting in kind. The response was collaborative with major players and even entire countries as part of the Fentanyl epidemic, particularly China, “I am and have been the chair of the U.S. side of our annual counter-narcotics working group with China. We talk about, at the working policy level, what our issues are…what do our laws look like, what do your laws look like,” He paused, “We were asking China to control a lot of fentanyls very quickly. Ultimately, to control them as a class.”

Working in collaboration with scientists and other professionals, the group managed to universally schedule fentanyls as a controlled substance, despite fentanyls not being abused in China. Harry spoke on the effort, “It’s made a difference in the U.S. and I am sure elsewhere. There’s no incentive to try and make a fentanyl analogue and try to beat the system in China or here. The next struggle is and will be synthetic opioids that are not fentanyl and we’re already headed there, but that’s something we’ll deal with when we get there.”

As the nation’s largest litigator and prosecutor’s office, the Department of Justice, first and foremost, deals with enforcement. Their role has always been one of disrupting and dismantling dangerous organizations. However, Harry’s policy role is more coalition-building, “At the policy level, (we) advise and build sound policy working across government with interagency partners…we try to build coalition and understanding to develop legislation.” 

Truly, his time in Maryland dealing with the squabbles of boards and agencies were just the appetizer before his main course: negotiating efforts on the national and world stage. At a national level, Harry had worked for years with prosecuting attorneys, DEA regulators, and a myriad of others from across the federal sphere to draft effective regulations and legislation. Internationally, Harry had experience consulting with the British Home Office group dealing with designer drugs, working on the G8 Law Enforcement Projects Subgroup to disrupt transnational organized crime, and even working as part of an international group of experts to draft model drug laws for nations worldwide. Harry has truly been a part of the global effort to end drug trafficking. 

 He chuckled but then his face became a bit more serious, “We’re working the issue…we shine a light on synthetic drugs and synthetic opioid problems; also, (to) get international help with these issues. We cannot do it alone,” he mused on, “Working in policy is like sitting in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village for decades while everyone else travels the world. They see a lot of things at just one level, but we get to see things growing and changing over time until eventually the world’s come to us,” he paused and shrugged, “That’s our niche.”

The hardest part of the job according to Harry is the world simply not seeing things through the lens of a policy expert. He also spoke on the frustration of dealing with the politics of the moment getting in the way of needed action, “Being the person who thinks they’ve figured things out and seeing things years ahead by virtue of seasoning in this kind of thing…trying to avoid the whack-a-mole carnival game and being able to see the future and knowing the practical and political will to address it is not there,” He paused, “I see some problems in the law that I want addressed…but there aren’t easy vehicles for doing so.” He shrugged as he talked about the issue, “But there’s experts in every department, they see the future differently and it’s the interagency dialogue that lets us figure out how all those futures all fit together…I guess the problem is just not being king.” 

His favorite part of his job is putting the puzzle together, “Even figuring out what ought to be done when it looks like it’s not going to have legs is interesting,” he paused, “We may have written parts of different bills. It’s interesting to see how it takes shape,” he sighed, “It’s maddeningly frustrating when it [“it” being sensible legislation] doesn’t go there, but that’s just part of being in the trenches.” 

Policy work can begin in many different ways, but Harry’s advice on getting into it? Start local: “I’d become an assistant district attorney, get into their drug unit, and work,” The work of local individuals becomes vital. The base level, according to Harry, is where the important understanding begins, “It gets it in your blood. You begin to understand how drugs are trafficked and why…you begin to understand how this world works. You understand the law, then you can begin to get into the policy.” 

He also found it important to work with other organizations in the state, “Work with the board of pharmacies. Learn how drugs are regulated in your state,” He paused again and his voice lowered a bit though a faint glimmer flashed in his eye, “It really is fascinating…if I could make a road map of how to get to this job, that’s what I’d do.”

As we concluded, he put his coat and hat back on and we walked out through the rose quartz hallway to the bustling street adjacent the National Mall. He asked if I wanted to try one of the rental scooters by the intersection to get back to the metro. I declined out of fear of hurting myself. He chuckled, “I was just trying to be like one of you millennials. Sometimes the little bit of risk is part of the ride anyway,” He said with a wave before hopping on the shuttle back to his building with a casual wave. 

As his shuttle pulled away from the curb, I reflected on the interview and my own ideas of practice. A dream of litigation has the pull of theatrics and drama of a courtroom. However, the more I mulled over the interview, the more I was impressed with his advice to law students looking to become involved in these matters: start local. In order to begin effectively addressing the complex contours of the drug problem in this country, the grassroots work must be the foundation of change. 

I continued towards the metro. From the corner of my eye I saw the peak of the Washington Monument peeking over the museums wrapped in a halo of sunlight. I decided to take a detour by the mall. I looked down the lawn and spied the various monuments on and along the mall. Each monument honored a different era and figure in the American tradition with grand structures and ivory-colored stone, stark against green grass and blue sky. I began to feel inspired by Harry for my own work in the next era. As I continued my detour across the mall to find the closest metro stop, I wished I had brought my sunglasses. 

November Advocate of the Month: Ilana Eisenstein

[Each month, the Addiction Legal Resource Team at Penn State’s Dickinson Law recognizes an exceptional individual for their contributions to the addiction treatment community. The individual recognized as Advocate of the Month for the month of November is Ilana Eisenstein. A former federal prosecutor, Ilana Eisenstein is now the Co-Chair of the Appellate Advocacy Practice at DLA Piper and recently became involved with Safehouse Philly. For more about Safehouse Philly, see here. We are thankful for inspiration from our honored advocates and from Dickinson Law’s Inside Entrepreneurship Blog. To learn about our past month’s advocate, see here.]

By J. Alexander Short

When she first learned of a newly proposed safe injection site in Philadelphia, Ilana Eisenstein felt a call to action. Safehouse Philly sought to provide a Philadelphia neighborhood with access to a facility in which individuals with substance use disorder could use drugs under medical supervision. Its proposal, however, was swiftly met with opposition by the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia. While Safehouse was local to Philadelphia, its success or failure very well could become a crucible for harm reduction efforts nationwide – and Ilana knew it. 

This is why she contacted the team of people in charge at Safehouse Philly and offered her services to become involved with the impending legal challenges. It was in this role that Ilana co-drafted the answer to the U.S. Attorney’s initial complaint for declaratory judgment seeking to have the facility declared illegal before it was opened.  Regardless of one’s take on the Safehouse project, Ilana’s unique perspective, her impressive resume and her commitment to healthcare-related reform make her an easy selection for the Advocate of the Month for November. 

Ilana’s perspective is shaped by professional and personal experiences.  A graduate of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Ilana started her career clerking for the Honorable Edward R. Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Shortly thereafter, Ilana joined the Department of Justice as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. With over eight years of experience as a federal prosecutor, Ilana was the lead attorney on more than 100 cases and tried 11 jury trials to verdict, with significant involvement in large scale drug prosecutions.  She then served as an Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, during which time she represented the United States in five oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court.

As a career federal prosecutor for nearly a decade, Ilana naturally weaved a law enforcement perspective into her discussion of large-scale healthcare issues. In fact, she regularly addressed competing incentives with near-mathematical precision. When asked about her first case as a prosecutor, which involved the criminal charge of Drug Delivery Resulting in Death, Ilana acknowledged the harsh and tragic consequences charges like “DDRD” have for people in the midst of addiction. At the same time, she did not mince words: “Predatory dealers deserve punishment.” However, she readily admitted that punitive measures are not always the most effective solution.

A local to the Philadelphia area, Ilana grew up in a community hard hit by the opioid epidemic. Beyond that, Ilana’s mother is a professor at Temple Medical School and her husband is a physician. These close ties to the healthcare world informed Ilana’s perspective of the ongoing need to address the opioid crisis.

When the topic returned to Safehouse Philly, Ilana carefully laid out the case for a safe injection site. As one might expect with a former federal prosecutor, her arguments were supported with sound evidence: “There has never been an overdose death in a supervised injection facility.” When discussing drug overdose deaths, “every second is critical,” she stated with a somber flatness. “In Philadelphia, the average emergency response time is nine minutes. An overdose takes only three to five minutes.”  

This focus recurred throughout our conversation, perhaps most notably when I asked Ilana where she finds inspiration in moments of struggle. Her response provided some insight into what keeps her fighting for these issues: “I am continually inspired by people who are doing the hard work each day in our community. One of the things I love about working with Safehouse is the connection with José Benitez (executive director of Prevention Point Philadelphia and a co-founder of Safehouse), who works day in and day out with his community, often in tough circumstances. Honestly, that is what energizes me.”

When Ilana discussed her role as an appellate attorney, she explained how she has the privilege of not just enforcing the law, but enforcing what the law should be. It is clear she passionately cares about how things should be in her community. Perhaps the best example of her passion can be found in the first page of Safehouse Philly’s answer to the U.S. Attorney’s complaint. It spells out the dire nature of the current state of affairs in Philadelphia:  “In the last two years, more than 2,300 of our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and neighbors died of opioid overdoses in Philadelphia alone. Philadelphia’s overdose fatality rate is nearly four times its homicide rate.” Laying out the foundational argument for safe injection facilities, the answer continues, “[t]his is the stark reality: in an opioid overdose, a person loses consciousness, stops breathing, and then—absent intervention—will die.”

Ilana works everyday to serve her community as an accomplished lawyer and advocate. Just like she is invigorated by the steadfast work of those around her, we at Dickinson Law’s Addiction Legal Resource Team are inspired by Ilana Eisenstein’s tireless work to fight for her and her client’s understanding of how things should be in her community. 

Collateral Health Effects of Heroin Use

By Travis Murray

[The following blog post is written by a licensed pharmacist in Pennsylvania. This post is intended to illustrate diseases and medical conditions in which intravenous drug abuse (IVDA) is considered to be a risk factor. This post is not an exhaustive list of the health complications associated with IVDA nor is it intended to be used as medical advice to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.]

Overdose from intravenous heroin and fentanyl use can result in death. However, overdose is not the only harmful or even lethal effect of administering illicit drugs intravenously. Contaminated needles and impure substances can result in other deadly health effects. These health effects can also have substantial economic and potential legal consequences as well. The following is a list of serious risks and complications of illicit intravenous drug use, including HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and endocarditis. 

  1. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Transmission

HIV is the virus that is responsible for acquired-immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus can be transmitted from needles that were previously used on an HIV-positive person. AIDS weakens the body’s immune system to the point that the body is unable to fight off most infections. If AIDS is left untreated, patients can succumb to life-threatening opportunistic infections such as: toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus infection, and cryptococcal meningitis. In an effort intended to dissuade HIV-positive people from spreading the virus, 26 states have criminalized behavior that can lead to HIV exposure. 

  1. Hepatitis C (HCV)

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) can spread from a contaminated needle containing the virus from another person. Hepatitis C can result in liver disease that can cause ascites and cirrhosis. Infected people can experience severe distended abdomens, jaundice, and fluid retention that can worsen heart, lung, and kidney function. Cirrhosis can permanently destroy liver cells. Alcohol and some opioids are also harmful to the liver and can worsen liver disease. If left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to liver failure and the need for a liver transplant. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C like there is for hepatitis A and B, but there is now a cure for hepatitis C, with treatment costing tens of thousands of dollars. 

  1. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Infections

MRSA is a drug-resistant bacteria which can lead to serious and life-threatening illness if the bacteria enters the bloodstream. MRSA can lead to bacteremia and endocarditis, which is an infection of the endocardium in the heart. The bacteria can colonize in the heart valves and severely weaken the heart, sometimes permanently, resulting in heart failure. The bacteria can spread to other part of the body and lead to sepsis and septic shock, a life-threatening condition. MRSA can only be treated with a few antibiotics, and even these antibiotics are dwindling in their efficacy. MRSA can also cause severe skin and soft tissue infections resulting in painful, swollen, and pus-filled abscesses. MRSA is only one of countless blood-borne bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that can lead to severe infection. 

  1. Poisoning

Heroin is a Schedule I substance and is not approved for any therapeutic use in the United States. Heroin is not commercially produced with the same purity and potency standards because it is not regulated as an approved food or drug. Without regulation, heroin that is purchased could really be any substance at all. Heroin products are likely adulterated and contain toxins that can damage blood vessels and organs. Heroin may contain fentanyl, an opioid more potent than heroin. This presents complications for health care providers because users cannot accurately state what substances are inside of them and numerous and expensive tests may be necessary to correctly identify the poison and additives. 

  1. Collapsed Veins

Illicit drugs are not administered by trained medical professionals. Poor technique, dull needles, and frequent injections can result in collapsed veins which make injections into the vein to deliver the drug impossible. Users often rotate injection sites in the event of a collapsed vein to the other arm, behind the knee, hands, feet, and groin area. Eventually, all veins may become collapsed. Scarring also makes it difficult to find veins. This presents a serious medical issue if the user needs medical treatment that requires intravenous delivery of fluids or medications. 

  1. Constipation

All opioids are associated with constipation, whether they are administered by mouth or intravenously. While constipation may seem relatively minor in comparison to other complications of opioid-use, it can become quite severe if left untreated. Impaction can cause extreme abdominal pain and cramping and may lead to perforations of the intestine and severe abdominal infections. If impaction does not respond to laxative therapy, surgery may be necessary. 

  1. Dental Disease, Malnutrition, and Diabetes 

Heroin use is associated with poor dietary intake which can lack essential macronutrients and essential vitamins and minerals. Heroin increases the desire for simple sugars, which can increase the risk for dental decay and the lack of fiber can worsen constipation. High sugar diets also increases the risk for diabetes. Diabetes weaken the immune system by decreasing circulation throughout the body and is considered to be an additional risk factor for poor wound healing and worse outcomes from MRSA, especially when the infection is on the feet. Severe diabetes, if not properly managed, can result in numerous health problems, including: kidney disease, vision loss, heart disease, nerve pain, and infections. 

  1. Health and Safety of Others

Intravenous drug use can have consequences on others as well. For example, contaminated needles have the potential to infect others who use the same needle. Improperly disposed of needles can infect other people that come in contact with needles, especially if left in public places. Public concern is high on ensuring that used needles are disposed of properly, as a South Carolina jury awarded $4.6 million to a woman who was punctured by a hypodermic needle in a Target parking lot in 2014. Needles should never be shared and should be disposed of in a sharps container. If you do not own a sharps container, used needles can be: placed in a thick empty plastic laundry detergent container, filled no more than three-quarters full, labeled “DO NOT RECYCLE – CONTAINS SHARPS”, and placed in the regular trash with the lid taped closed. 

If you are exposed to a used needle, the wound should be cleaned with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately. For more information from the Addiction Legal Research Team regarding how to prevent the misuse and abuse of prescription opioid medications, see 10 Ways to Reduce the Risk of Opioid Misuse and Abuse. For an article exploring safe injection sites, see Safe Injection Site Fights to Call Philadelphia Home. 

October Advocate of the Month: Keegan Wicks

By J. Alexander Short

[Each month, the Addiction Legal Resource Team at Penn State’s Dickinson Law recognizes an exceptional individual for their contributions to the addiction treatment community. The individual recognized as Advocate of the Month for the month of October is Keegan Wicks. Formerly involved with the RASE Project, Keegan Wicks is now a Project Coordinator for Faces & Voices of Recovery, a national advocacy organization fighting for the rights of those affected by addiction. We are thankful for inspiration from our honored advocates and from Dickinson Law’s Inside Entrepreneurship Blog. To learn about our past month’s advocate, see here.]

Before I had the pleasure of speaking with Keegan Wicks, I knew about him. People spoke of him and did so with high regard. Whether at local symposia on the current opioid crisis, in the local Opioid Intervention Court, or during discussions with fellow law students, his name continued to echo in my life. His involvement with the RASE Project, a local recovery organization, led to his invitation to speak on a panel on the opioid crisis at Penn State’s Dickinson Law in the fall of 2018. There, Keegan spoke eloquently and candidly about his experiences and how they led to his becoming involved with the world of treatment and recovery. Hearing his words made me hopeful about one of the most serious health crises of my generation – not an easy feat. This was my introduction to Keegan. He is a natural choice to feature as Advocate of the Month. 

When I spoke with Keegan, he introduced himself in a few ways. He told me he was a person who had a connected relationship with his family, he was an upstanding citizen, and he was someone who is actively involved with his employer. Keegan then stated he also happened to be a person in long-term recovery. Not long into our discussion, he explained how he never imagined he would be someone with a substance use disorder. He never planned for this, but it still happened. His story parallels so many I have read about in the past year. While we spoke, I noted how forthright and sincere he was about these traditionally sensitive subjects. Whether discussing the struggles he faced in his past or the hardships our society is facing in the current opioid crisis, Keegan’s tone remained consistent. Everything he said resonated a singular message: The battle against substance use disorder is a fight which cannot be fought alone. 

As our conversation twisted from one topic to another, Keegan consistently stressed the importance of family in his personal journey. “I wouldn’t have been able to maintain recovery without others in my life,” he stated without hesitation. Without family, it would have been nearly impossible for Keegan to overcome substance use disorder and all the struggles associated with it. However, despite all of the difficulties associated with these topics, Keegan remained stubbornly optimistic. He went on to say that “family was just such an important piece in [his] receiving the care [he] needed.” It took little time for it to become clear that the manner in which Keegan successfully overcame his battle with substance use disorder informs his current outlook to this day in countless ways. Now, Keegan is able and willing to give back to others struggling and participate in the recovery community. It is this calling that drives Keegan’s work.

Like I mentioned earlier, I first met Keegan and heard him speak at a conference at Penn State’s Dickinson Law in the fall of 2018. There, he spoke about his story. Since 2013, he actively worked in the recovery field through roles in advocacy, counseling, and management. The organizations with which he has been involved reads like an alphabet soup: CRAFT (Community Reinforcement And Family Training); the Workforce Development Steering Committee for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Office / Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) Collaboration; the Recovery and Resiliency Steering Committee lead by the Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance (PRO-A); the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association (PMHCA); and the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Service Mental Health Planning Council (OMHSAS MHPC). However, he primarily spoke about his work with the RASE Project, the advocacy organization which serves the needs of individuals in and seeking recovery in Central Pennsylvania. Specifically RASE is a Recovery Community Organization, meaning it is comprised entirely of staff and volunteers from the Recovery Community and it exists to serve the Recovery Community. The RASE Project allowed Keegan to become involved with the Central Pennsylvania community, but today he advocates on a larger scale. 

Keegan’s now focuses his energy fighting for the rights of individuals facing the same struggles he had to overcome in his life. Since June of 2019, he works with an organization known as Faces & Voices of Recovery. The organization’s mission reads as though Keegan himself authored it. Faces & Voices of Recovery is “dedicated to organizing and mobilizing the over 23 million Americans in recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs, our families, friends and allies into recovery community organizations and networks, to promote the right and resources to recover through advocacy, education and demonstrating the power and proof of long-term recovery.” At Faces & Voices of Recovery, Keegan advocates for people in recovery in a number of ways. Through his work there, Keegan focuses on the continued development of recovery organizations. Put simply, recovery organizations are organizations which help someone during the recovery process, oftentimes by pairing them with individuals who have already been through the process. In one project, he is working to coordinate and establish recovery community organizations in Florida run by members of the recovery community to assist those in recovery themselves. He noted that peer services like these are an essential component in developing a large-scale response to the current drug crisis in this country. Even when discussing this project, it doesn’t take long for Keegan to bring it back to family: “It’s really about going out into the community and educating people about the family dynamic.” However, Keegan recognized there are even more battles to fight.

One such battle is the overarching issue of stigma associated with substance use disorder. As Keegan spoke about stigma, it quickly became apparent how language is fundamental in educating people about substance use disorder as well as causing change in how institutions address it. Loaded language has the potential to identify people by their ailment, rather than their personhood. For instance, words like junkie or addict do harm to this cause and should be avoided. Instead, as Keegan explained, person-first language like ‘person in recovery’ or ‘person with substance use disorder’ refocuses the language in a far more positive manner. “Imagine if a doctor told you that your chlamydia test came back ‘dirty’,” Keegan said frankly, “and yet that language is regularly used in court proceedings everyday to describe positive drug screenings.” The need for careful language goes beyond everyday conversation and impacts legislation and policy.  

With equal conviction, Keegan discussed the importance of legislative advocacy for those affected by substance use disorder.  He discussed one such law which could impact the lives of anyone with a substance use disorder: 42 CFR Part 2. When enacted, these federal privacy protections were motivated by the understanding that individuals with substance use disorder may fear treatment due to stigma or the potential of prosecution. Currently, Keegan explained, there are efforts being made to align these protections with HIPAA, but there are large gaps in the law as it exists today that could harm individuals with substance use disorder. Check out a summary of the ongoing changes being made to these regulations here. 

The nature of most discussions about the opioid crisis or larger issues of addiction are naturally difficult to have. These topics cause people stress or discomfort. Even more often, people become exasperated about the colossal nature of the problem. Keegan is not like most people. Whether explaining his personal journey in recovery or detailing legislative developments of the past week, Keegan spoke with a contagious, unfettered optimism. It was hard not to feel refreshed and invigorated in my passion about this topic after speaking with him. 

In many ways, after our discussion, I understood why so many people spoke so highly of Keegan. In his demeanor and energy, he naturally shines a light onto topics so regularly tucked away into the shadows. Beyond that, Keegan puts in the hours each day to make the changes necessary to overcome a monumental crisis. Perhaps it is his history with recovery, his understanding of the magnitude of this crisis, or his work ethic that drives him. Whatever it is, Keegan continues his fight and is not looking back. 

September Advocate of the Month: Judge Jessica Brewbaker

By Evan Marmie

[Each month, the Addiction Legal Resource Team at Penn State’s Dickinson Law recognizes an exceptional individual for their contributions to the addiction treatment community. The individual recognized as Advocate of the Month for the month of September is the Honorable Jessica Brewbaker. Judge Brewbaker was first elected to serve in the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas in 2015. Since 2017, Judge Brewbaker has served as the overseer for Cumberland County’s newly formed Opioid Intervention Court. We are thankful for inspiration from our honored advocates and from Dickinson Law’s Inside Entrepreneurship Blog]

The room was full. I found myself standing in the corner, shoulder to shoulder with a student intern. Judge Brewbaker sat in the center of the room, her family over her shoulder in frames on a bookshelf. She sat before an oaken desk in front of her just beside a neat bundle of papers and a ready pen. She laughs and smiles as she speaks to the professionals seated and standing around the intimate office space.

“Good news!” She announces as the meeting begins. They begin talking over progress and plans for individuals. Jokes, laughs, and smiles take the place of the typical brooding. The mood carries from meeting to the Courtroom.

A lit chandelier illuminates the room as sunlight pours in from the morning sun. A small clock done up in a country primitive design hangs on the wall just behind the pews filled with people present for the Opioid Intervention Court. Across the room, a white wingback leather chair sits behind a desk on a two-tiered dais. The words “Where Law Ends, Tyranny Begins”, embossed in gold letters, rest on the white-painted wood panel wall just behind the judge’s seat. 

A resounding knock reverberates off the walls. “All rise for the Honorable Judge Brewbaker.” The judge walks in as the room stands. She takes her seat. She smiles, “Sit down, be comfortable.” Gone from the room is the typical somber air of a proceeding, but in its place is the same feeling from meeting in her chambers: warmth and trust. 

The procession begins, each person approaching the judge with a casual gait. “I’ve been to every meeting,” one said. “I’m looking forward to vivitrol now, actually,” The judge responds to each person with a smile and warm comment of her own. The proceeding goes for just shy of an hour before the judge dismisses the group to return to their lives. 

The Opioid Intervention Court (OIC) took time and effort to get assembled. Cumberland County’s community was unsure, and the judges were nervous about the work an every-day court presented. Judge Brewbaker, however, was excited for the prospect from the start, “I’m the person now that goes out to get the community on board…that was my role from the beginning.” The judge had described herself as a “cheerleader” for the court model, brought in from a court in Buffalo, New York. It fit, both in and out of the courtroom.

For over a year, the court has taken individuals and put them through a rigorous every-day program of treatment and rehabilitation for the exclusive purpose of saving lives. No person who has completed the program died and only 1 of the 115 people to enter the program has died in the past year. The court manages more than simply saving lives. 

The court has been effective at reducing recidivism. Beyond crime reduction, it has also done much to change the lives of the people in the program. “It’s a lot of work,” The judge remarked, “Two-thirds of our people get jobs. That’s shocking, they’re not required, they have a lot going on. But they do it. It’s a lot of work, but it is so worth it.”

Back in her chambers, Judge Brewbaker settled back into her desk chair. “So, that was court. What did you think?” She asked. I told her that it was a deeply human, casual, but serious and inspiring the experience. 

“That’s part of what these courts do. Focus on the humanity of the problem.”

The Opioid Intervention Court was an unusual concept to the Cumberland County community: a pre-trial intervention program designed to help people survive. To the Judge, the concept was something familiar. She had worked with another judicial program known as TOMS Court, named for Judge Brewbaker’s father who tragically lost his life in the battle for mental health. TOMS or Together Optimizing Mental Health Solutions Court was designed to optimize outcomes for people whose crimes were committed as a result of mental illness. “Interaction-wise, it’s a lot like what you saw.” She remarked on it, along with some of the overlap, “Two of my guys from Toms Court I saw in OIC and sometimes it’s vice versa…It’s an interesting overlap. It really helps to see how often the two coincide. It becomes important to determine which is the primary concern for the individual.” 

Judge Brewbaker always had a proclivity to help others, even before becoming a judge. From her first internship, she worked with people in difficult situations as an intern for the Cumberland County Public Defender’s Office. “It really fit my personality; you felt like you’re helping people,” She paused, “when you’re a public defender or when you do any criminal defense, people say, How can you defend people who do all these things? and generally what I always say is that you’re not defending bad people, but people who made a bad choice or bad decisions.” The public defender’s office offer was an unexpected but welcome starting place for her legal career.

Following years in Criminal Justice, Judge Brewbaker decided to chase a dream: becoming the judge she is today, “I had always wanted to be a judge since I was young. Ever since watching Judge Wapner, the predecessor to Judge Judy,” She laughed, “I remember talking to Judge Hoffer, who is no longer living but was a President Judge here, about that path and being a judge here. He said, it’s not the normal path but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.” Following her conversation with the judge, she ran for Magistrate Judge and assumed her first bench.

As magistrate, Judge Brewbaker would often be the first and last human interaction an individual would ever have with the justice system. “That was my biggest concern with leaving the magistrate position and becoming a Common Pleas Judge. Not being able to interact with members of the community. But these courts do that for me, so…” She laughed. From warrants and tickets to treatment and prevention, Judge Brewbaker found herself focused on two things the most: community and people.

Those people in the criminal justice system are the easiest for the OIC to reach. Overdose deaths have decreased following the advent of the court, but there is still a problem: opioid deaths not involving the criminal justice system. “We’re serving our community. But that means there’s communities out there we aren’t serving.” Criminal justice has limits, but the judge sees the criminal justice community as having an even bigger opportunity. She sees places to make changes for laws to promote more treatment in exchange for criminal immunity, “In criminal justice, we have a carrot and a stick. The big carrot is getting out a jail…that doesn’t exist outside the system.” Treatment, not punishment, is always the focus from her perspective. 

Communities have a greater effect on the lives of people struggling with addiction than even the court could exercise. Stigma surrounds people struggling with addiction. The Judge remarked that part of her position has become that of an advocate, “I go out to the community leaders, I go out to business leaders and I say, “Offer them a job.”” Beyond jobs, the Judge recognizes a lack of available housing when families cannot house them. Ultimately, it becomes a question of communities giving the individuals in OIC a chance, or as the judge says, “changing the conversation.” 

“It’s why I speak all the time…it makes me so sad when I read conversations or comments…where people say just let them die when we talk about Narcan.” The judge has one response to the commenters: Come to Court. “We are doing everything we can do inside the court and we’re pretty effective here. But we can’t do anything about when they go out there. If the people who think they’re not worth saving would meet our participants and get to know them and see the amazing individuals they are and the potential they have…they would change their opinions and the conversation.”

Judge Brewbaker has set her sights beyond the borders of her own community to begin efforts in other places.  She, alongside a number of other judges in similar courts, contributed their observations towards creating a manual with the essential elements of an Opioid Court alongside the National Bureau of Justice. The manual’s purpose would be to export the court to other jurisdictions where it could help, “The big ask is that it’s a daily court and it requires a whole team.” Despite the resources demanded, Judge Brewbaker believes in the model, “I think, financially, the numbers will support it is not a loss. Even if you don’t count lives saved…and especially counting the lives saved.” 

Systemic change is Judge Brewbaker’s focus. “One person can’t make a change. I mean, not really…you can make a change for a person or two or in your family or in your world, but for one person it’s darn near impossible.” The focus for her is on humanizing addiction, “Let the community know and expose them to people.” Her goal and promise, every day, is about changing the conversation.

The Opioid Intervention Court was a challenging prospect for Cumberland County. It needed a champion and found one in Judge Brewbaker. Helping others was the backbone of her legal practice before she found herself in the position of judge for the OIC and as a national advocate for the court model. She continues her work by changing the conversation and promoting treatment for individuals struggling under the heel of addiction.

As we wrapped up, the Judge welcomed a clerk into the room. She pointed to my recorder, “Don’t forget that!” She smiled. She began reviewing documents on her desk and chatting with her clerk as she set back to work. We shook hands and she thanked me for coming to speak with her, “I always like talking about this with people.” I nodded and thanked her as I gathered up my bag. She walked me to the door before setting back to work, her judge robes still looming in the corner as she set to the papers on her desk. Before I left, she was already back to work.

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