July 17, 2019

The Opioid Problem Is Also a Jewish One

In the summer of 2009, music superstar Michael Jackson’s drug overdose and the complicated circumstances surrounding his death dominated headlines. Jackson died after taking a lethal mix of prescribed opioids. Conrad Murray, Jackson’s doctor at the time, was arrested and ultimately sentenced to four years in jail for administering the drugs. But other doctors had prescribed Jackson opioids. Concerned with pending investigations, several of them called Harry Nelson.

Nelson, 51, a leading health care lawyer who lives in Beverlywood with his wife and their four children, remembers one former Jackson doctor in particular. After a lengthy phone call during which Nelson calmed down the doctor, they set up an appointment for the following day. The doctor was a no-show. A few days later, Nelson learned the doctor had taken his own life by overdosing on opioids.

This personal story is the introduction to Nelson’s new book, “The United States of Opioids: A Prescription for Liberating a Nation in Pain” (ForbesBooks). The book includes a foreword by Lisa Marie Presley.

“Even now, nearly a decade later, I think about this doctor frequently,” Nelson writes in the book. “It wasn’t even a story that made the newspaper. This doctor was just one more faceless victim of the massive crisis we all now face.”

In the book, Nelson states that in 2017 alone, 72,000 Americans died of overdoses, with more than 500,000 dying in the last 20 years; 20 million Americans currently live with addiction; and 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain but struggle to gain access to opioids because many doctors are afraid to prescribe them.

He also writes that for the last two decades, he has witnessed the devastation the opioid crisis has unleashed while serving as a lawyer for doctors, hospitals, drug-rehab facilities and other health care organizations. 

In the book, Nelson attempts to unpack this complex issue by sifting through the impact of history, government regulation agencies, public policy and root causes of widespread chronic pain.

During a phone interview with the Journal, Nelson said he knew he’d be able to reach members of the health care community, but to reach a broader audience, he made the book very “reader friendly.” It contains graphics, data charts, a glossary of terms, a resource guide and end-of-chapter recaps that highlight key points. 

“There’s overdose in every part of Jewish communities, most shockingly in Chasidic and Orthodox communities.” — Harry Nelson 

“My priority with the book has always been to bring some clarity to the issues,” Nelson said. “There’s so much anxiety, both among patients and health professionals, and everyone I deal with. There’s politics and fear. I’m trying to bring a calm voice and present an impartial view that relays what we need to be focused on.”

In the book, Nelson calls on many entities to do more in combatting the opioid crisis, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), insurance companies and doctors. 

However, as a modern Orthodox Jew, Nelson told the Journal, faith communities also need to step up. “There’s a mistaken belief that the Jewish community isn’t touched by this like other communities,” he said. “In my work, I see Jewish families with Jewish kids dropping dead. There’s a unique problem of shame in Jewish life. We’re a community of such high achievement. But I still think our Jewish institutions are profoundly limited when it comes to stopping this shame about what’s going on.”

Born in suburban Detroit, Nelson is a third-generation lawyer who nearly became a third-generation rabbi. Both his father and grandfather completed law school and began practicing law, then decided to go to rabbinical school. “When I was finishing up law school, everyone kept asking me the same thing,” Nelson said. “ ‘That’s great,’ they’d say, ‘but when are you going to rabbinical school?’ ”

Nelson stuck with law. Still, he’s closely involved in the fabric of Jewish life in Los Angeles, attending services at three synagogues and helping found Kahal Chasidim, a shul in the Pico-Robertson area. Nelson also works closely with Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles residential addiction treatment center that saves lives through a comprehensive program with Judaism at its core. It’s a model Nelson would like to see replicated in other Jewish communities. 

“There’s overdose in every part of Jewish communities, most shockingly in Chasidic and Orthodox communities,” he said. “I’m talking about hundreds of kids every year. I don’t have good statistics. There’s a steady stream of Chasidim from communities on the East Coast sending kids [to Beit T’Shuvah] because there are so few places. Los Angeles, in a sense, has been ahead of the curve.”

In his book, Nelson paints a picture of a nation suffering from chronic pain, but not solely in the physical sense. He writes that more people than ever feel isolated, disconnected and purposeless with the advent of social media and online interaction replacing human interaction. The result is staggering statistics on nationwide anxiety and depression.

“It’s not an accident that if you talk to people who come out of 12-step programs, they focus on spirituality,” Nelson said. “Being in psychosocial-focused peer communities is where you feel recognized and seen and validated. It’s where you develop a spiritual path, a sense of purpose for why you’re in this world. Religion is there for that reason, and these are things that get lost in modern society. Religious community is where people find those things.”

He added he hopes that in the near future, the problem of addiction to numb pain becomes a “burning issue” in synagogues and other houses of worship. “Candidly, I have been in dialogue with many rabbis locally and nationally, some prominent ones, about why the opioid crisis is not a bigger priority in our community,” he said. “The Jewish community has a unique challenge. How do we make our communities a place where people feel accepted and feel they can share what’s bothering them? How do we make synagogues places where they can really connect on that level?” 

To promote the book, which was released in March, Nelson is scheduled to make appearances and attend speaking engagements around the country through the end of the summer. That slate includes events at health care facilities and law offices, and with religious communities and groups of rabbis.  

“I’m glad that it’s getting attention,” he said of the book that to date has sold more than 10,000 hardcover and digital copies. “I feel good that it’s starting different conversations.”