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May 6, 2006 - New York Times (NY)

Column: War On Drugs Makes Life Harder For Pain Sufferers

By John Tierney, NY Times

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Now that Rush Limbaugh has managed to keep himself out of prison, the punishment he once advocated for drug abusers, let me suggest a new cause for him: speaking out for people who can handle their OxyContin.

Like Limbaugh, Richard Paey suffers from back pain, which in his case is so severe that he's confined to a wheelchair. Also like Limbaugh, he was accused of illegally obtaining large quantities of painkillers. Although there was no evidence that either man sold drugs illegally, the authorities in Florida zealously pursued each of them for years.

Unlike Limbaugh, Paey went to prison. Now 47 years old, he's serving the third year of a 25-year term. His wife told me that when he heard how Limbaugh settled his case last week -- by agreeing to pay $30,000 and submit to drug tests -- Paey offered a simple explanation: "The wealthy and influential go to rehab, while the poor and powerless go to prison."

He has a point, although I don't think that's the crucial distinction between the cases. Paey stood up for his belief that patients in pain should be able to get the medicine they need. Limbaugh so far hasn't stood up for any consistent principle except his right to stay out of jail.

He has portrayed himself as the victim of a politically opportunistic prosecutor determined to bag a high-profile trophy, which is probably true. But that's standard operating procedure in the drug war supported by Limbaugh and his fellow conservatives.

Drug agents and prosecutors are desperate for headlines because they have so little else to show for their work. The drug war costs $35 billion per year and has yet to demonstrate any clear long-term benefits -- precisely the kind of government boondoggle that conservatives like Limbaugh ought to view skeptically.

Yet conservatives go on giving more money and more power to the drug cops. When critics complained about threats to civil liberties in the Patriot Act, President Bush defended it by noting that the government was already using some of these powers against drug dealers. Why worry about snooping on foreign terrorists when we've already been doing it to Americans?

Limbaugh objected when prosecutors, unable to come up with enough evidence against him, demanded to be allowed to go through his medical records in the hope of finding something.

He managed to stop them in court, but other defendants can't afford long legal battles to protect their privacy.

Drug agents and prosecutors go on fishing expeditions to seize doctors' records and force pharmacists to divulge what they're selling to whom. With the help of new federal funds, states are compiling databases of the prescriptions being filled at pharmacies. Once their trolling finds something they deem suspicious, the authorities can threaten doctors, pharmacists and patients with financially crippling investigations and long jail sentences unless they cooperate by testifying against others or copping a plea.

Paey was the rare patient who refused to turn on his doctor or plead guilty to a problem he didn't have. He insisted that he'd been taking large quantities of painkillers because he needed them. He wanted to protect his own right to keep taking them, and others' rights as well.

"They say I was stubborn," he told me last year. "I consider it a matter of principle."

Limbaugh got off partly because he could afford the legal bills (which he says ran into millions of dollars) and partly because he cooperated with prosecutors. He confessed to being an addict, went into rehab and swore to remain clean.

Perhaps he really was one of the small minority of pain patients who hurt themselves by compulsively using drugs like OxyContin for emotional, not physical, relief. But most pain patients can become physically dependent on large doses of opioids without being what doctors consider an addict. They take the drugs not to escape reality, but to function normally.

Even if Limbaugh believes that drugs like OxyContin are a menace to himself, he ought to recognize that most patients are in Richard Paey's category. Their problem isn't abusing painkillers, but finding doctors to prescribe enough of them. And that gets harder every year because of the drug war promoted by conservatives like Limbaugh.

It has been said that a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested. I wouldn't wish such a conversion on Limbaugh. But a two-year investigation by drug prosecutors should be enough to turn a conservative into a libertarian.

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