On a mission: Former judge raises opioid addiction awareness


Former 51st District Court Judge Jodi Debbrecht Switalski is a nationally known authority on substance abuse.

Photo by John Meiu

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Since former District Court Judge Jodi Debbrecht Switalski stepped down from the bench in January of 2016, she has been travelling the country to bring more attention to the consequences of opioid addiction.

“Next week I’ll be lecturing at Harvard Medical School. This year alone I will have talked to 12,000 high school students,” said Switalski, who gives more than 100 presentations annually to medical and legal professionals, schools, and community organizations.

In February, Switalski joined the newly established opioid group practice at the Birmingham law firm of Lippett O’Keefe Gornbein, a move that she said will support her efforts to expand her reach as she talks about how addiction to prescription painkillers is infecting the workplace and turning ordinary people into offenders.

“Our opioid practice is attacking this issue from the front end and the back end,” Switalski said. “Businesses have a duty to provide a safe workplace, to be sure the opioids are not coming into the work environment, and to create protocols to help employees learn about the effects of substance abuse.”

Speaking to attorneys and members of the auto industry at the 2017 Autocom Tech Crawl in Birmingham, an annual Michigan news and technology event, Switalski cited a report from the Center for Disease Control that showed an alarming upswing in opioid use since the mid 1990s.

“From 1995 to 2012, prescriptions for opioids increased from 10 million to 259 million. That’s one bottle for every American,” Switalski said. “These increases are going to cost the U.S. billions of dollars in the workplace and health care. Not a single business is immune.”

Even as opioid use surged, the medical profession was slow to recognize the connection between opioid consumption and addiction, according to Switalski.

“Medical practitioners were sold a bill of goods – that opioids were not addictive. Let’s not forget about the misleading patient’s bill of rights and reimbursement for positive patient satisfaction,” Switalski said. “Today, we consume 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone. It’s the biggest cause of accidental death in this country, exceeding drunk driving and gun homicide. Drugged driving rates have surpassed drunk driving.”

Substance abuse among the American labor force is costing employers billions of dollars in unexcused absences, tardiness, work related injuries, and compensation claims, Switalski said.
“The National Safety Council reported that substance abuse in the workplace totaled 53 billion dollars last year. Nearly 80 percent of that number was attributable to lost productivity,” Switalski said. “Seven states have legislated how many opioids a doctor can prescribe. But that’s a problem for the people who can’t take anything else for pain, so the key is better patient monitoring.”

For the former prosecutor and judge, education is the piece that’s too often missing from the workplace where employees who use opioids are more likely to sustain injuries and employers are less likely to recognize substance abuse in their midst.

“We must to learn to educate ourselves. You are distancing yourselves from this by thinking, ‘this is not my child, not my business.’ No one thinks it will be their child, but 85 percent of opioid addicts are white middle class,” Switalski said.

A former judge on the Veterans Treatment Court, Switalski, drew on her own experiences with familial addiction and her work with addicted veterans. “At the age of 51 my grandfather died of cirrhosis of the liver. I have an uncle and an older brother who are in recovery. But I really didn’t know about it until, through my education and career, I looked at addiction from every angle,” she said.

Even though Switalski no longer presides over the VTC, she remains on its board, continuing her work as an advocate for veterans’ health.

“Veterans wrote a blank check for this country and we are not doing a good job of paying them back for their service when they’re home,” she said. “More than 80 percent of veterans who are incarcerated had a prior substance abuse disorder and because most incarcerated vets don’t report their prior military service, only a small number of those get benefits through Veterans Treatment Courts.”

Switalski said while the VTC gave her the opportunity to speak for veterans, she believed she could reach a wider audience through speaking appearances and private practice.

“Leaving the VTC was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made but I wanted to be a better voice for veterans, to be able to talk about this on a national level, to save the life that couldn’t be saved,” Switalski said. “I really felt called to do this. I wanted to do more. It kept me awake at night. This is why I left the bench.”