October 29, 2003 - Pulse of the Twin Cities (Web, MN)

Will Rush Take His Own Medicine?

by Jason Samuels

If you follow the news, you have probably noticed that conservative media personality Rush Limbaugh has had a very rough October.

His troubles began early in the month when, as a sports commentator on ESPN, he caused a stir by making racially inappropriate comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Then, after resigning from his job at ESPN, news reports surfaced that Limbaugh was named in a Palm Beach County state attorney's office investigation into an illegal South Florida prescription drug ring. The following week, Limbaugh shocked his nationwide radio audience by admitting that he is an addict, and that he was immediately checking into a 30-day treatment program at a rehabilitation center.

While it is usually unfair to exploit anybody's misfortune, Rush Limbaugh's case does warrant a look at whether the treatment he receives will be equal to that which he advocates for others. Keep in mind that Limbaugh is an influential Republican pundit whose radio show reaches 15 million listeners nationwide. Limbaugh once postulated that "if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up." Rush further explained the racial disparity in drug sentencing by saying that "too many whites are getting away with drug use."

And now, before voluntarily checking himself into rehab, Rush Limbaugh was accused by his former housekeeper of using her to illegally purchase more than 30,000 prescription pills, including Oxycontin-a powerful painkiller which has been linked to increasing levels of illicit abuse. The question here is not whether Rush Limbaugh made some bad decisions, he's an admitted addict-he did, but the question is whether Limbaugh will be "sent up" for them, thus fulfilling his own strategy for racial equality in drug sentencing.

The answer to this question is most likely "no." Recent trends have exhibited a wide disparity in the ways that rich, well-connected drug offenders are treated, compared to their less privileged counterparts. If recent history is any indication, Rush Limbaugh's experience will probably more closely resemble the case of Noelle Bush than that of Ramah Leon Combs.

Noelle Bush, daughter of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and President George W. Bush's niece, was first arrested in January 2002 for allegedly attempting to purchase a widely abused anti-anxiety drug, Xanax, with a fake prescription. For her crime, a Florida judge ordered Ms. Bush into a treatment program. While in rehab she was arrested twice with controlled substances. In July 2002 she was jailed three days for possessing prescription pills at the center, and then in October 2002 she spent 10 days in jail for having crack cocaine in rehab. However there were no more public incidents since, and this past August Noelle Bush's rehabilitation stint was declared complete. The drug charges against her were dropped, and Ms. Bush was released a free woman.

Noelle Bush's ordeal is a painful story of addiction, relapse, tough love, and recovery. It is heartwarming that she has been released to pursue a better path, but it is also a sharp contrast to the heartless manner in which countless other drug offenders are treated by the American criminal justice system.

Ramah Leon Combs is one such person being punished far more heavily for his bad decisions. Combs grew up poor, the 10th of 13th children to an Eastern Kentucky miner and former schoolteacher. The Combs family supplemented their meager income by tending a small farm, raising animals, and hunting wildlife. Firearms were a fact of life for the Combs family, and Ramah never imagined that his lifelong hobby of collecting guns would one day result in him losing everything.

In June 2000, Ramah was involved in a motorcycle accident which resulted in fractures to his spine and ribs, and a punctured lung. After two weeks in the hospital, he was released with a prescription for Oxycontin 40mg. On January 22, 2001, Combs was arrested and later indicted on federal charges of trading his medication for a stolen firearm. Unable to afford a private attorney, Combs was appointed a public defender. His representation readily admitted to being a golf partner to both the prosecuting attorney and the judge in his case.

Combs' trial was held in Frankfort, Kentucky's state capitol, rather than his native Eastern Kentucky. During the trial, Combs' accuser repeatedly admitted to stealing firearms and trading them to various people, yet nobody but Combs was ever charged with a crime (not even the gun thief turned informant). The jury returned a guilty verdict on four of the five counts, and without any prior convictions, Ramah Combs was sentenced to 31.3 years in a federal prison.

These two stories exhibit the widely disparate way in which the privileged and underprivileged are treated for indiscretions related to drug abuse. Drug charges currently account for more arrests each year than for any other type of violation in the United States. And yet while almost three in four American drug users are white, more than three-fourths of those serving time in American prisons on a drug charge are black or Latino. The injustices inherent in draconian drug laws thus magnify our society's greater disparities. It is systemic that within America's stratification of wealth and power those who can afford justice will get help, while those who cannot get crushed.

I would like to offer this open message to Mr. Limbaugh: As your wealth and status carry you through this ordeal, as your private lawyers shield you from harsh prosecution, and as your money buys you the best addiction services available, please think of those who do not get the treatment you are receiving. Please remember that in the past you have defended the incarceration of more than half a million Americans for having troubles similar to yours. And when you overcome your demons and reach a healthy recovery, please think about just how fortunate you are, and please reconsider your views about using a punitive approach towards drug use and addiction.

The stories cited here, and many more, are available online via the Media Awareness Project and the November Coalition

The author, Jason Samuels, is a member of Students for Sensible Drug Policy

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