Marilyn Odendahl for www.theindianalawyer.com
Marion Superior Judge William Nelson, whose stepson died of a drug overdose, confirmed Monday he is under consideration to be the nation’s drug czar.
Nelson applied to be the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy last December and he traveled to Washington, D.C., in July for interviews with Trump administration officials.
The White House subsequently tapped Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tom Marino, but he withdrew in October after reports surfaced that he authored legislation that crippled law enforcement’s effort to stem the flood of prescription painkillers. Nelson said he has recently gotten a call from the administration, asking if he was still interested in the position, which he said he was.
Nelson said he is “humbled by the honor” of even being considered.
A graduate of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, Nelson presided over Marion County Small Claims Court for six years before being elected to the Marion Superior Court, Criminal Division, in 2000.
He said he has been encouraged by the changes he sees the Trump administration bringing to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Nelson believes the agency lost momentum under the Obama administration, having its role reduced and doing a lot of talking but taking little action.
The judge pointed to administration’s support for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which provides money to states for drug use prevention and treatment, as well as for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, which supports local police activities to target high crime neighborhoods. However, the White House initially considered cutting the department’s budget by roughly 95 percent before changing direction and offering a budget proposal that included $27.8 billion for drug control efforts.
If he is nominated, Nelson will share a heartbreaking experience that a growing number of families have had – losing a child to addiction. Bryan Fentz, the son of Nelson and his wife, Kristina, became addicted when he was prescribed painkillers after a car accident. He entered treatment and, according to Nelson, wanted to kick his drug habit. But in 2009, he overdosed and died.
Kristina Nelson discovered her son dead in his bedroom on her birthday.
The tragedy changed Nelson’s perspective from the bench. He has come to realize drug users are suffering from a disease, often taking narcotics to stave off the painful symptoms of withdrawal. Also outside of the courthouse, he and his wife have talked openly about their son and have advocated for prevention programs and treatment for addicts.
“My standpoint as a judge, we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” Nelson said. “We can’t continue to jail the people suffering from this disease.”
That stance does put Nelson at odds with members of the Trump administration, in particular with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has pushed for a tougher approach to drug users. Speaking in July at the 30th DARE training conference, Sessions emphasized prevention, described law enforcement as key to keeping drugs off the streets, and sounded skeptical of treatment.
Nelson sees the administration as making a distinction in its approach. “I think President (Donald) Trump has been quite vocal about distinguishing dealer and traffickers from people suffering from addiction,” he said. “I think it’s important to distinguish between the two.”
Getting nominated would put Nelson in the spotlight and highlight his family’s financial difficulties after Bryan’s death. He said he has been honest with the administration about the struggles.
Nelson said Bryan, unbeknownst to either him or his wife, took money from their retirement accounts and diverted their monthly mortgage payments all to support his daily drug habit. The couple then faced penalties from the Internal Revenue Service for the withdrawals from retirement savings and saw their home fall into foreclosure.
Attempting to prevent the loss of their home, Kristina Nelson forged her husband’s signature. Nelson attributed her actions to grief and said she admitted responsibility, eventually being convicted of a misdemeanor. Also, he said they were able to work through their financial entanglements and recover on their own.
It is another part of the drug experience that Nelson and his wife endured. He said he has learned that people suffering from substance abuse disorder are smart and resourceful but will lie, steal and cheat to chase drugs. Nelson does not see his stepson as a criminal but rather as a straight-A student who wanted to overcome his addiction.
“Addiction touches everybody one way or another,” he said. “I don’t know anybody out there who doesn’t know someone or have a relative or family member who’s been affected by this crisis.”