Soros Justice Fellow tackles opioid crisis
Christine Minhee is angry: angry thousands of Americans die from opioid addiction every year; angry at policy solutions that have fallen short; angry how settlements fail to address the problem’s root.
Now, bolstered by a prestigious fellowship earned in 2019, Christine Minhee is doing something about it.
“I decided to go to law school because I knew early on my career would involve persuading people using words,” Minhee said. “But I left my career in marketing for the law because I wanted to do more than persuade people what to buy: I want people to buy into ideas.”
One idea — the one that put the recent graduate and Dean’s Medalist on the national radar — manifested in a scathing paper Minhee co-authored with Steve Calandrillo, University of Washington Jeffrey & Susan Brotman Professor of Law. The paper, “The Cure for America’s Opioid Crisis? End the War on Drugs,” was published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy in 2019, and it helped pave the way for Minhee to become the second UW Law student to earn a Soros Justice Fellowship — one of the most prestigious and competitive in the country.
Beneath a shock of long blue hair, Minhee is an unabashedly outspoken and self-identifying “establishment-adjacent weirdo.” Her law school career has been fueled by a simmering frustration at America's war on drugs, and she decided early on she wanted to leverage her legal education to disrupt the forces perpetuating that status quo.
After completing her undergraduate education in English Literature at Stanford, Minhee worked as a copywriter and technical writer for seven years before turning her focus to law school. As a 1L, she considered the challenges she would face rattling cages in her future career.
“Part of the realization of my marketability was understanding how I present physically — a person of color, a woman, someone who people perceive as being interested in the drug industry because she’s in it for the designer drugs angle or went to Burning Man,” Minhee said. “I had to think about these presumptions I knew would threaten my ideas before I even said them.”
Each year, more Americans die from opioid overdoses than from firearms or car accidents. Deaths from 2017 outnumber those from the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
President Barack Obama asserted that opioid addiction is a public health crisis; President Donald Trump declared it a national emergency. Still, Minhee said, the violent results continue to tell a different story, and she wants to hold officials accountable for how they respond.
“I wanted to do more than persuade people what to buy: I want people to buy into ideas”— Christine Minhee
Minhee identified Seattle as a haven for her ideas. She knew she would find allies in the Emerald City, and she did. Through connections made during her judicial externship with the Western District of Washington and close working relationships with professors, Minhee put herself in a position to seize the opportunity when presented with it.
“I once heard somebody say that the best way to earn success is to deserve it at all times so that when luck does hit you, you’re ready,” Minhee said. “Here, I’ve felt so much good energy. I’ve never felt so career-lucky.”
In fall 2019, Minhee will begin her opioid litigation watchdog project with the Open Society Foundations. Her advisory board include leaders from the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU of Washington and local drugs liability defense counsel.
She said her goal is to illustrate step-by-step how parens patriae settlements with big pharmaceutical companies are distributed and explore whether settlements and litigation can be used to bolster the public health response to addiction. As Minhee put it: “What is the lemonade we can make out of these lemons?”
It is a tall task, but one that is impossible to ignore for someone with Minhee’s resolve. Going forward, she plans to continue to raise her voice, speak out for those who can’t and change the world one idea at a time.
“I’m not naïve; I’m not going to be the one person who shuts down big settlement agreements,” Minhee said, “though I’d like to be. But my fighting stance is that if these companies are going to do the exact same thing over and over, I’m going to analyze and expose how the shamble happens.”