Opioid Settlement Tracker Seeks Government Accountability
“Everything that is deeply morally flawed about society rears its head in the war on drugs,” says Christine Minhee, J.D. ’19. “It shows how we answer the grand philosophical question: What do we do with those of us who are struggling? Do we outgroup them or try to reinclude?”
Recognizing that she lives in a society that outgroups people, Minhee founded Opioid Settlement Tracker to spur change. Her data-centered site compiles information on opioid settlement dollars. So far states and local governments have received more than $54 billion from opioid manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.
Minhee starts with the premise that overdose crises are individual responses to societal failures, and that addiction occurs for many complex reasons that warrant care, not punishment or abandonment. “When the world is broken, people anesthetize themselves,” she says. She mentions a spike in drug use in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and in the United States after the Civil and Vietnam Wars.
Information as a Change Lever
If drug use is a societal problem, it would follow that impacted individuals ought to receive societal support. Instead, Minhee contends in an article published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that failures by federal agencies like the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) exacerbated the impact of the overdose crisis.
Holding government accountable is especially important to Minhee considering that citizens directly impacted by the opioid crisis laid the legal groundwork for successful government litigation and are now mostly left out of the settlement dollars. Current opioid settlement dollars also allow for a redo after what happened with tobacco settlement dollars. In that case, states received the $246 billion without accountability measures, and little went for its intended purpose of supporting public health and holding the industry accountable.
Fast forward to what’s happening in 2023. While states are indeed required to spend at least 85% of their opioid settlement winnings on opioid remediation, they are surprisingly not required to report exactly how they’re doing so. “Because the grand majority of opioid settlement expenditures won’t need to be publicly reported, we are heading into a data desert,” says Minhee. “Unless more states volunteer to publicly report their opioid remediation expenditures, we will have a lot more information about how we got here and the continuing impact of our crisis than how these billions of settlement dollars are being spent.”
That’s where Opioid Settlement Tracker’s most recent collaboration with Kaiser Health News comes in. Minhee recently completed an assessment of states’ additional, self-imposed promises to publicly report their opioid settlement expenditures and negotiated an exclusive first look with Kaiser Health. Together, they’ll be working to publicize her results in the hopes that more states will promise to publicly report their opioid remediation expenditures. “I have hope that if they merely knew how well states like Colorado and Oregon were doing, others would strive to compete,” she says.
This public reporting assessment adds to the existing portfolio of opioid settlement-related datasets, such as dollars in and dollars out, Minhee has amassed on her site since 2019. Set up like a data wholesaler, Opioid Settlement Tracker provides relevant information to advocates and organizations who can use the data to hold governments accountable, demand policy change, and seek funding and support for communities.
Given the interest domestically and internationally, Minhee recognizes that she’s providing a unique and necessary service. “It speaks volumes about this country that someone less than five years out of law school now runs the most reliable opioid tracking website in the world using mostly nonprofit funding,” she says. “I’m surfing a wave that is not about me and managing to not fall off the board. This is why I want to encourage law students that know they have something going on to persevere.”
Seeing the Potential in People
Minhee struggled in law school. She describes the burden of debt and losing faith in herself. “Given my background, I should never have gone to law school,” she says. “I was the young millennial woman of color focusing on drug law and policy. The idea was kooky and fringe, not a horse to bet on.”
The first person to encourage her was Professor Steve Calandrillo. “This journey would not have been possible without him,” she says. “He asked me to co-author a piece about opioid litigation in 2017, and my career was set on its course ever since. His mentorship kept me steady during dark times, and he’s for me the perfect example of a life-changing law professor.”
The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy published the article. From there, with a Soros Justice Fellowship and faculty advising from Calandrillo and Professor William Bailey, and the University of Washington serving as a host organization, Minhee started opioidsettlementtracker.com.
Minhee also received an endorsement in the form of an award. “I’m grateful to Dean Barnes for giving me the Dean’s Medal at the end of my three years,” she says. “That felt significant to me. It’s one thing for a law student to feel discouraged about the possibility of shaking things up. It’s another when the law school sees a student heading in that direction and jumps on her train to reward her for her non-traditional path.” After her fellowship ended in early 2021, she converted her work into a freestanding legal and policy advocacy consultancy that allows her to contribute to federal drug-related legislation and serve as an expert witness in county drug possession cases.
“I would like my path to be heartening to law students because law school is laden with norms and narrow archetypes of legal success,” says Minhee. “As much as students can, I urge them to hold on to their better instincts and not give up.”
The promise of the work is Minhee’s reward and challenge. “It’s no coincidence that sometimes the most empathetic, sensitive, creative and thinking people become substance users,” she says. “It doesn’t look good as a species to continue to scratch our heads about this.”