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Professional Addicts

A good education, prestigious career and high income do not always protect you from substance abuse

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Ken Lawson was a practicing lawyer when he was deep
into his prescription painkiller addiction.
Photo: Mark Arbeit

For lawyer Ken Lawson, it began with a sports injury and a prescribed painkiller. It ended in disbarment and prison.

In between were years of escalating dependence on prescription opiates, alcohol and cocaine, plus abuse of clients’ trust funds, missed court dates and increasing paranoia.

The only thing that saved him was prison. On his first night there, Lawson says, he enjoyed the best sleep he’d gotten in a long time.

“What I had to come to understand was that I was so far along, I just could not quit on my own,” he says. “It was consequences that got me sober.”

His case and those of many others prove that a good education, prestigious career and high income do not always protect you from substance abuse. In fact, professionals, managers and executives with addictions are desperate to maintain their jobs because they need the money to finance habits that can cost hundreds of dollars a day or more, says Dr. William Haning, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. So they hide signs of their addiction from bosses, colleagues and clients.

“The last thing that’s going to go is his job,” Haning says of the working addict. “They sequester, they wall off the job and hold it together as much as possible (at work), and then everything else around the job falls off.” 

Dr. Gerald McKenna agrees. “People will protect their job at all costs. So, by the time it finally shows up in the workplace, it’s usually very late stages of addiction,” says McKenna, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist who runs a Honolulu support group for professionals battling addiction. He also founded the McKenna Recovery Center, which has branches in Hilo, Lihue and Honolulu, and is a professor of psychiatry at the Burns School of Medicine.

Lawson has lived on Oahu since 2008, but his struggles with addiction took place over the course of many years, and began in Ohio. After graduating from law school in 1989, he went to work for one of the largest firms in Cincinnati at that time. He left four years later to start his own practice as a criminal defense lawyer. The work was challenging, he says, but he knew it was what he wanted.

“I’d get there at five in the morning, start answering the telephones, typing my own stuff, and I wouldn’t leave until dark – Monday through Monday, every day of the week,” he says.

His hard work paid off quickly. Within six months, Lawson went from a staff of just himself to having three lawyers and two secretaries working under him. He won a string of high-profile cases in Ohio during the 1990s and thoroughly enjoyed his status as a hard-working lawyer, a “pit bull in the courtroom.”

In 1999, while lifting weights, Lawson tore the rotator cuff on one of his shoulders and was prescribed Percodan for the pain. The pills helped, but Lawson kept taking them even after his shoulder had healed, and soon he was taking them habitually.

“You think that it’s different from regular drugs, like cocaine or meth and all the other stuff,” he says. “You think, for some reason, because it’s prescribed, that somehow it just can’t be the same type of drug or have the same effect. I always thought, ‘At least I’m not hooked on crack,’ like that makes a difference.”

Lawson’s path into addiction is one of the most common for professionals, who are less likely to become addicts to methamphetamines and other “street drugs.”

“Lawyers generally tend to follow the law. Methamphetamine is illegal, so they generally stay away from it,” says Steve Dixon, who runs Hawaii’s Attorneys & Judges Assistance Program, a confidential counseling program.

“For most of the professionals that we see,” McKenna says, “the addiction is still alcohol, whether they’re physicians, attorneys or businessmen. But they’re a slightly older group also. The newest drugs that professionals and businessmen seem to be using are the opiate drugs.”

McKenna says most addictions to opiate-based painkillers begin with a legitimate prescription.

“They’re very powerful drugs,” he says. “Opiates impact so many parts of the brain that they calm people’s anxieties to a degree that other drugs don’t. But, eventually, people are using them because it makes them feel normal.”

Positive drug tests for opiates in the general U.S. workforce increased nearly 7.7 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the annual Drug Testing Index published by Quest Diagnostics, a worldwide leader in diagnostic services. The index shows that positive tests for opiates have been rising for years and are up 20 percent since 2007.

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Aug 31, 2013 08:41 am
 Posted by  petecurtner

I've known Ken Lawson sense he came into the 12 Step Program of Recovery. I consider him a very good friend. I've watched him grow from a low bottom addict to the gentleman and scholar he is today. Just shows how people can recover with the fellowship of many doing together what we can't do alone. Pete C.
P.S. I'm so proud of Ken, and love him like a brother.

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