Tony Newman at 212-613-8026 or Shayna Samuels at 646-523-6961
As the high profile case of Rush Limbaugh brings news of addiction and its consequences into the national dialogue, many on both ends of the political spectrum have wavered from long-held positions about society’s appropriate response to nonviolent drug offenders.
A number of proponents of treatment over incarceration, noting Limbaugh’s striking hypocrisy, are calling for the talk show host to get a taste of his own medicine – i.e. the same time in a prison cell he demanded for less fortunate Americans addicted to drugs. On the other end, the “punishment without mercy” community has produced either deafening silence – see Drug Czar John Walters or Attorney General John Ashcroft – or limp rationalizations, such as those offered by pundits Sean Hannity and Anne Coulter.
“Drug policy reform is not a left-right issue. We have friends across the political spectrum,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “What’s hard to take are Limbaugh defenders who don’t care about the hundreds of thousands of people just like him who are rotting behind bars, and liberals saying he should be in a prison cell for having a drug problem.”
“Rush Limbaugh is a junkie. Take away his money today and he’d probably be on the street looking for real heroin to keep from getting sick,” added Nadelmann. “But we don’t believe addiction is a matter for the criminal justice system, including when the addict is Rush Limbaugh. Case closed.”
The Drug Policy Alliance argues that all Americans struggling with drug addiction should be treated equally under the law, and that as long as no one else is harmed as a consequence of their drug use, people should not face criminal punishment for what they put into their own bodies. Consistent with these principles, the Alliance urged the media and the public to consider certain key issues as the debate about the Limbaugh case continues to unfold.
1. Millions of Americans depend on medications such as OxyContin to relieve serious and debilitating pain, and millions of others need such pain medication but do not have access to it. These patients should not be stigmatized, and their access to adequate medication must not become a casualty of misplaced hysteria generated by the Limbaugh case.
2. There is far too little effective drug treatment available to the millions of Americans who need it. Though effective drug treatment costs far less than interdiction and incarceration and is proven to be significantly more effective, by the government’s own estimates more than half of the people in the U.S. who need drug treatment do not have access to it.
3. Methadone maintenance treatment — the proven, most effective treatment for addiction to opiates such as heroin and OxyContin – is stigmatized and subject to regulations that make access impossible for millions of Americans. Methadone is completely illegal in some parts of the country, and where it is legal it can only be obtained through clinics in limited supplies. Unlike other drugs, this lifesaving and safe medication cannot be obtained through a pharmacy or a doctor’s visit.
4. Relapse is an inherent and expected part of drug treatment, whether the substance involved is tobacco, alcohol or an opiate like heroin and OxyContin. Rush Limbaugh has checked himself into drug rehab for the third time. This does not mean that he has “failed”, but rather that his path toward recovery may involve many attempts and setbacks, as addiction specialists recognize. Few people addicted to drugs – whether cigarettes, coffee, prescription drugs or cocaine – are able to quit “cold turkey.” This is especially true for people who are addicted to the family of drugs know as opiates, which include heroin, opium and OxyContin. Unfortunately, people addicted to illegal drugs generally face prison when they relapse.
5. Drug addiction doesn’t discriminate, but our drug policies do. Despite roughly equal rates of drug use across racial lines, African Americans, Latinos and other people of color are disproportionately targeted, arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated in the war on drugs. A 2000 study by Human Rights Watch found, for example, that “relative to population, black men are admitted to state prison on drugs charges at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than that of white men.” In New York State, 94% of those incarcerated for violating a drug law are black or Latino.
“Lots of people are looking to score political points, settle grudges or simply defend a friend at all costs here,” said Nadelmann. “We hope that the national Limbaugh debate is guided not by politics but by the facts – and by consistent principles of fairness and justice.”