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October 20, 2005 - Charlotte Observer (NC)

Prisoner Of Pain Becomes Martyr Of Drug War

Now State Pays For The Medication He Was Convicted For Obtaining

By Radley Balko, policy analyst at the Cato Institute

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Today, Richard Paey sits in a wheelchair behind high walls and razor wire in a high-security prison near Daytona Beach, Fla. Paey is a 46- year-old father of three, and a paraplegic. His condition is the result of a car accident, a botched back surgery and multiple sclerosis -- three setbacks that left him in chronic, debilitating pain. After moving to Florida from New Jersey, Paey found it increasingly difficult to get prescriptions for the pain medication he needed to function normally.

Paey's difficulties finding treatment were in large part due to the federal and state governments' efforts to prevent the illegal use of prescription pain medicine. A doctor today could face fines or suspension, the loss of his license or practice, even prison time and the seizure of his property should drug cops (most of whom have no medical training) decide he's prescribing too many painkillers. As a result, physicians are apprehensive about aggressively treating pain.

Paey went from doctor to doctor, looking for someone to give him the medication he needed. By the time he eventually turned to his old New Jersey doctor for help, he had attracted the attention of Florida drug control authorities. What happened next is in dispute, but it ended with a raid on Paey's home, his arrest, and his eventual conviction on drug distribution charges.

Paey insists his old doctor wrote him the prescriptions he needed. The Florida pharmacists who testified at his trial back him up. But the doctor says Paey forged the prescriptions. Cops gave the doctor a devil's bargain - -- give Paey up, or face 25 years to life imprisonment himself for excessive prescribing of painkillers. Paey maintains the prescriptions were legitimate, but understands why his doctor turned against him.

Why No Legal Access?

The larger issue, of course, is why a man who is clearly not an addict (he wasn't taking the medication to get high) and had a legitimate use for the medication wasn't given access to what he needed in the first place.State prosecutors concede there's no evidence Paey ever sold or gave his medication away. Nevertheless, under draconian drug war statutes, they were permitted to pursue distribution charges against him solely based on the amount of the medication in his possession (the unauthorized possession of as few as 60 tablets of some pain medications can qualify one as a "drug trafficker").

Paey was convicted and put in prison for 25 years. Ironically, the state of Florida now pays for a morphine pump connected to Paey's spine that delivers the same class of medication at the same doses the state of Florida told him wasn't necessary, and put him in prison for trying to obtain.

Prosecutors originally offered Paey a plea bargain that would have helped him avoid jail time, but Paey refused, insisting that (a) he did nothing wrong, and (b) even he had, it shouldn't be a crime to seek relief from chronic pain. Paey feared that a plea would make other doctors in the state more reluctant to treat pain.

Publicly, Paey's prosecutors have conceded that the sentence was excessive, yet they insist that Paey himself is to blame, citing his refusal to accept a plea agreement. The chilling implication: Paey is serving prison time for drug distribution not because he's guilty of actually distributing drugs -- the state admits as much -- but because he insisted on exercising his constitutionally protected right to a jury trial.

No Threat To Anyone

Earlier this year, Paey was moved to a prison facility more than two hours from his wife and family, who live in New Port Richey. He was then moved even farther away, some 170 miles, to the Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach.

At about the same time, prison medical staff told Paey that the state refused to give permission for them to refill his morphine pump. For Paey, this was the equivalent of a death sentence. The state let him agonize for weeks before finally authorizing the refill the day before his pump was scheduled to run dry.

Two activist groups -- the Pain Relief Network ( and the November Coalition ( -- have begun a campaign urging Gov. Jeb Bush to grant Paey a pardon. Paey is not a criminal. He isn't a threat to anyone. He's a tragic figure who has become a political prisoner of America's allegiance to zero tolerance drug prohibition.

Paey should be freed. And Florida lawmakers should pass reforms to ensure that drug war fanaticism doesn't prevent sick people from getting the medication they need.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute, 1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20001.

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