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The opioid crisis requires anger management

Shift in thought

A judge overseeing lawsuits against legal opioid makers and distributors makes a good case for reducing the anger in favor of a brokered settlement with solutions.

Federal judge Dan Polster in his office in Cleveland, Ohio.
AP Photo
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For Americans looking to reverse the rise in opioid overdoses, a good place to start is the courtroom of Dan Polster, a federal judge in Cleveland. He has been tasked to mediate a legal settlement out of more than 180 lawsuits brought by states and others against name-brand opioid makers and drug distributors.

Judge Polster has offered this strong counsel to the plaintiffs and defendants: Ending the opioid crisis is too urgent to allow years of litigation over who is to blame. The first step in finding a solution is to reduce the anger over causes. The way forward is to admit a common interest in funding remedies.

He has ordered all sides to think through the problem together, “not as a fight to be won or lost,” as he told a group of law students. He has brought in experts on drug use and treatment to advise the litigants in closed-door sessions. And to reduce the temptation to raise the political temperature, he ordered the parties not to speak to the news media.

Courts, like politics or the news media, need not always be arenas solely for adversarial battles. When the United States is losing about 150 people a day to drug overdoses, the judge is wise to avoid a jury trial and set a tone of reconciliation. The opposing views and facts over the responsibility of the drug industry in marketing painkillers would take too long to sort out in court appeals, would be unpredictable in the outcome, and perhaps yield too little in money years from now.

Judges often push litigants to see the greater good in a brokered settlement. The reason is obvious. “It’s almost never productive to get the other side angry,” Polster said. “They lash out and hurt you and themselves.” Or as President Obama once put it, “We can’t move forward if all we do is tear each other down.”

The judge says he felt compelled to force a large-scale mediation effort because, as he put it, other branches of government have “punted” on solving the opioid crisis. The additional money needed by governments to prevent and treat opioid addiction is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

The outcome of the judge’s tactics may not be known until the end of 2018. But one possible result of the talks so far was the announcement by Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, that it would no longer market the drug to doctors. The company also said it would work closely with the judge’s purpose. His anger management may be working.

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