Opiates: We have the answer

Issue November 2015 By Robert W. Harnais

"We have the answer." It's a statement we would love to hear in response to the devastating opioid problem that surrounds us. But we're not hearing it, and we probably never will. Because there is no single answer.

Any lawyer who spends even a small amount of time in criminal courtrooms these days knows how pervasive the opioid epidemic is. It crosses all demographic lines. When it comes to ruining lives, opioids do not discriminate, and they're proving it resoundingly, every day.

Making matters worse, the actual users are not the only people affected. The untimely death of a young person often steals his or her parents' happiness for the rest of their days. Siblings are plunged into depression. Young children are neglected and abused.

Even if opioid users elude death, their quality of life is nightmarish. They spend virtually every waking moment thinking about getting high. Chasing the next fix is continuous, interrupted only by brief intervals of drug-induced incoherence.

As a profession, what can we lawyers do to help eradicate this plague? Criminal defense lawyers take an oath to zealously defend their clients' rights. At the same time, people seek our help when they are in trouble. They look to us for advice. They understand that we can navigate the justice system in ways they may not even be aware of.

They want answers to difficult questions, and sometimes they don't like what they hear. Anyone who has recommended a plea agreement to a client knows that all too well. And yet, that plea agreement is often the best course of action.

When it comes to opioid drug cases, a disposition involving meaningful treatment is almost always the best course of action. It may save a life. It may save a marriage, a family. It can help a person regain the financial stability abducted by his or her greedy habit. Drug treatment is the key to salvaging the addict's self-respect.

These are all legitimate factors to consider when thinking about how to proceed in a drug case, and clients deserve to hear them discussed by their advocate.

We also need to remember that we don't always know all the answers, particularly on a subject as complex as opioid drug use. We and our clients can be well served when we collaborate with the medical community, the recovery community and other segments of the judiciary. The more information we present to our clients -- not just about their legal prospects, but also about their health -- the better equipped we are to convince them to make a good decision. We owe it to our clients, to the system we work in and the society we live in to go above and beyond simply defending a client against a criminal charge.

Knowing their confidentiality is safe, clients often confide in us in ways they do not with anyone else. Because of that, we are uniquely suited to recommend their best way out of a dead end, which is all too often what it literally turns out to be.

Lawyers are also called counselors. That label is particularly apropos when dealing with clients with drug addictions. They need wise counsel to find their way out of a life of despair.

We can't save the world. But we can do our part to solve one of the most vexing public health problems we will see in our lifetimes. It requires us to use our best judgment and to sometimes go against our instincts, our legal muscle memories. It requires us to be counselors as well as defenders. We've been trained to practice law, but let's also practice humanity. So let's help make a difference and be part of the answer.