The Drug Policy Alliance supports Rush Limbaugh’s process to overcome his addiction to opiates in private and out of prison, recognizing that the struggle is lifelong and that relapse is common. Now, however, back on the air in front of 20 million listeners, the Alliance is urging Limbaugh to use his life experience as an opportunity to support changes in the nation’s drug laws.
“Rush Limbaugh prides himself on amplifying scandals,” said Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Alliance. “Well, the real scandal is how many people are in prison for being addicted to drugs. Limbaugh should publicly support drug treatment, not prison, for those like him who struggle every day.”
Yesterday, Limbaugh’s first day back on the air, he said to his listeners: “I’m just like anybody else who has an addiction. I’m powerless over it.” Yet, in fact, he is unlike the vast majority of Americans who are addicted to drugs, in that most of them are punished with a lengthy prison sentence, and do not have access to quality drug treatment.
“Rush Limbaugh should encourage all Americans to be treated the way he or any member of his family would want to be treated if they had a substance abuse problem,” said Nadelmann. “Limbaugh should use his influence with the public and our elected officials to help make our drug laws more rational and compassionate.”
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 urges the media and the public to consider certain key issues as the debate about the Limbaugh case continues to unfold.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 200 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.