I am a board-certified osteopathic family physician who worked most of my career as a hospitalist. I am thankful to my university, family medicine program, and the state boards for being open-minded and future-minded and admitting and licensing me, respectively.
I was arrested and convicted of multiple counts of trafficking and abusing cannabis and MDMA (including using minors as agents in their sales) and multiple arrests for driving on suspended and expired licenses (which got suspended due to my drug issues). I know that is a mouth full, but please don’t take it out of context. I was very young and immature when I did these crimes.
I continued to mature through medical school and residency. I put in a lot of extra effort in studying question banks and eventually passed all three Complex exams. I even became a chief resident during my residency and recruited a lot of medical students to our residency program without discriminating against them based on age/nontraditional status, board scores or number of attempts, and most importantly, mental illness and drug-related criminal histories.
I cannot tell you how much I thank the medical profession for giving me a second chance, and I strongly encourage the medical profession to give others a second chance too.
You may ask why the medical profession should give people with criminal records a second chance.
First, many offenders are young and immature, and with time, they will change. Moreover, the process of dealing with the legal system itself can serve as a turning point.
Second, my criminal history has given me special empathy and sympathy for patients with criminal histories. I am not judgmental, and I treat patients with respect, whether they are drug abusers or drug traffickers. Because whenever doctors avoid and alienate such substance abusers, they are more likely to re-offend. My patients with drug issues and/or mental illness prefer seeing me because of my criminal history and regard me as someone who understands what they are going through and as a role model. For those patients with criminal drug issues who don’t already look me up in public records or already know about my history, I open up to them and this creates a special bonding and doctor-patient rapport that cannot even come close to being matched by any other doctor who does not know exactly what it is like to be in the patient’s shoes.
Third, altruism is a coping mechanism, and though it was depression that was driving my drug problems, my depression and thus drug issues resolved once I went to med school and started helping others. If I hadn’t have gone to medical school, I would have probably continued my life of abusing and trafficking drugs.
Fourth, society itself matures, and society’s attitudes towards substance use change with time. Previously (especially in the South Florida that I grew up in), people using marijuana were thought to be immoral. But these days, people with substance abuse are regarded as having a medical/mental illness and are thus protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. And as society matures, more and more previously illicit drugs are now being legalized (e.g., cannabis and ketamine); after all, using illicit drugs should be considered a medical/mental health issue and not a legal problem.
If the drugs I was abusing were legal when I was using them, I would have never needed to rely on trafficking them to get such drugs for free for myself or for free to friends with similar substance use issues/mental illness. I also wouldn’t have gotten arrested and thus developed a criminal record or suspended driving license. When I was growing in South Florida, I looked up to the Netherlands and their view that substance use should be a medical/mental health problem as opposed to a legal problem, and I’m glad that some states within the U.S. are moving in this direction.
I hope that medical students and medical boards also move towards opening admissions and licensing to providers with substance use-related criminal histories. After all, if they hadn’t let me become a licensed provider, my current patients with criminal histories and substance use issues would likely have never found a provider who truly sympathizes with them and can serve as a realistic role model for them and would thus continue to use substances and continue to get into legal problems.
Louis J. Riccardo is a family physician.
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