Monday, May 29, 2006


“MIAMI, -- Talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh surrendered to authorities Friday on a charge of committing fraud to obtain prescription drugs, concluding an investigation that for more than two years has hovered over the law-and-order conservative.

The charge will be dropped in 18 months, said his attorney, Roy Black, provided that Limbaugh continues treatment for drug addiction, as he has for 2 ½ years. According to an agreement with the Palm Beach County state's attorney's office, Limbaugh also must pay $30,000 to defray the costs of the investigation, as well as $30 a month for his supervision.”

Washington Post, April 28, 2006.

“There’s nothing good about drug use. We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families. Drug use destroys societies. Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. And the laws are good because we know what happens to people in societies and neighborhoods which become consumed by them. And so 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. What this says to me is that too many whites are getting away with drug use. Too many whites are getting away with drug sales. Too many whites are getting away with trafficking in this stuff. The answer to this disparity is not to start letting people out of jail because we’re not putting others in jail who are breaking the law. The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river, too.”

- Rush Limbaugh, speaking on his syndicated radio talk show, Oct. 5, 1995.

When it comes to the “War on Drugs” and its casualties, sometimes I feel kind of like Forrest Gump, a dispassionate observer encountering all parties to the problem. One day I might be in my office, listening to a sad tale of a marriage or a family ruined by alcoholism or drug addiction. Another day I’m in court representing an addict caught with drugs or a person accused of selling them. A third day I might be chatting up a prosecutor or drug enforcement police officer about the absurd treadmill on which the criminal justice system runs in a vain hope of stemming the tide of illegal drugs. A fourth day I’m in Juvenile Court representing children abandoned by a crack addicted mother.

The stories are different but all have essential similarities. A mother/father/wife/husband/son/daughter is hopelessly addicted to/a constant user of alcohol/crack/crystal meth/prescription drugs. The addict will avoid responsibility and deny using even when caught red handed. One man’s wife was found passed out in a crack house with a pipe by her side, yet she denied using the drug. Family members will blow the rent or grocery money and disappear for days. Adult children steal from parents to get money to buy drugs. Women prostitute themselves at local motels, knocking on doors to score a few dollars to buy crack. The State eventually takes their children, but the lure of the crack high is stronger than maternal instinct, and eventually their rights are terminated as they repeatedly fail to comply with the provisions of a court ordered plan which includes six consecutive monthly drug free screens.

Addicts may go to rehabilitation numerous times, but success is elusive. Reality is that there is nothing any other human being can do or say which will stop an addict from using again. Until 1985, the year that crack made its appearance in Southwest Georgia, a bad check case, a shoplifting case, or a forgery case, was nothing more or less than what it appeared on the surface. In the 20 plus years since, the great majority of those charges are drug related, as the addicts raise cash to buy drugs.

It was no wonder that during the 1980’s incredible pressure built on elected officials to do something- anything- to stem the tide of imported and home grown drugs and the consequences of addiction. Unfortunately, what we ended up with is a schizophrenic set of laws in which some rich celebrity abusers- such as Oxy-Contin abuser Rush Limbaugh- can walk out of a courtroom with a slap on the wrist and a promise of a clean record, while the poor face years of imprisonment for the identical crimes.

Recently I sat down in a small windowless room in a nondescript building with a drug enforcement officer, shooting the breeze. Although he has nominally been my opponent in several cases, he and I get along fine. Our conversation turned to the effects of his unit’s interdiction efforts in a local community. What he said didn’t surprise me: arrest one dealer, and a few days later another one will pop in to take his place. No matter how many arrests they make, the true measure of their effectiveness is the price of the product. If the price is going up, then they are affecting the supply. Currently, crack is relatively cheap-- $20 for a small piece, called a “rock,” which is about two tenths of a gram. The officer privately agreed with my observation that driving up the price doesn’t solve the problem. That just means an addict will have to steal more, pawn more, or prostitute more to get the money for the same amount of drugs. The officer frankly admitted that law enforcement can’t solve the drug problem, and he opined that no Congressman or legislator will ever dare say so.

Once, several years ago, in a moment of rare candor, a United States attorney admitted in response to my question at a local bar association meeting that marijuana offenses should not be in the criminal justice system. He said that enforcement of laws against marijuana offenders was wasting valuable federal and state resources, and he ventured- off the record- that decriminalization of the possession of marijuana was a desirable goal. Many judges and prosecutors will privately concede that our drug laws are unfair, absurd, and counterproductive. Most agree with the former U.S. Attorney that marijuana should be decriminalized. The realists understand that drug problems should be dealt with as public health problems the same way we do with alcoholism, criminalizing only the conduct which affects persons other than the user, such as D. U. I. laws.

Few Americans are aware that annual deaths from aspirin and other over the counter pain killers, about 7,500 a year, outrank deaths from illegal drug overdoses and reactions, about 6,000 a year. Annual marijuana deaths are 0, whereas legal tobacco products kill approximately half a million a year and deaths related to alcohol are in the hundreds of thousands. But the responses of Congress and presidents to facts and reality have typically been complete and utter hypocrisy, not unlike that of Rush Limbaugh, who never gave a moment’ consideration to turning down the kind of sweetheart deal he had railed against on his own show. Except for a very few honest public figures like Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and National Review founder William F. Buckley, the typical response is: lock em up, make penalties harsher, enact death penalties for drug kingpins. But the unspoken and unwritten exceptions are when the abuser is rich, a politician or a celebrity.

Our last two presidents are admitted illegal drug and/or alcohol users. Clinton famously said that he smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale. Bush confessed to having a drinking problem until he quit at age 40, and he has at least one recorded D.U.I. on his rap sheet from Maine in 1976. Both have been plausibly accused of cocaine use, and Bush reportedly performed community service in Houston in 1972 to get a cocaine possession charge dismissed.

Clinton was supposedly an “if it feels good, do it” liberal and Bush was once (hard as it may be to believe at this point) a self- proclaimed “compassionate conservative." But instead of benefitting from their experiences and treating these issues with understanding and compassion, they have been willing to have their Justice Departments oppose medical use of marijuana for chemotherapy patients and for people with terminal illnesses. Both supported Draconian laws which have ruined the lives of casual drug users like themselves and imprisoned persons for life without parole on drug charges, even though no crime of violence was involved. Clinton the “liberal” and Bush the ‘States’ rights conservative" had their attorneys general go to the Supreme Court to overturn California voters’ decision in a state referendum to allow marijuana use where medically necessary. The case was U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001); the suit started while Clinton was president, then was argued and decided under Bush.

Because our nation suffers from short attention span, we have long since forgotten the effects of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, when the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale of alcohol generated organized crime, official corruption, and open disdain for the law in speakeasies throughout the country. Thirteen years later, the country having realized how miserably the noble effort had failed, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. Similarly, the decades long “War on Drugs” has spawned cocaine cartels in South America, the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, and drug mules hauling their wares to nationally organized street gangs throughout America.

Undoubtedly, leadership on the issue of dealing with drug problems in a sane and intelligent fashion instead of the “burn the witch” hysteria and hypocrisy which has prevailed over the last two decades will have to come from the top. A governor or a president will have to stand up and tell the nation the harsh truth: the law can only do so much, and in the case of drug addiction, the law has created far more problems than it has solved. I’m not holding my breath.


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