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Rush To Judgment (10/11/03)
As you may have heard, the famous (infamous?) conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has admitted that he is addicted to opiates and checked himself into treatment. According to Rush, he became dependent on the drugs after an unsuccessful back surgery several years ago.
This turn of events represents a sort of grim victory for those of us seeking reform of the US's malicious anti-drug user policies. Although I truly sympathize with Rush (opiate addiction isn't something I'd wish on anybody) both his problem (and his admission of the problem) have brought the larger issue squarely into the consciousness of the conservative movement in the US. If Rush (who almost single-handedly dragged the nation to the right with his tireless rhetoric) could become addicted, have we been fair in the traditional attitude that drug addiction represents some sort of moral failing or lack or respect for the law? Although it wasn't literally heroin, there's really no substantive pharmacological distinction between the heroin addict and the oxycodone addict, nor should there be a social or moral distinction.
Addicts need help. They need compassion, counseling, and yes, even maintenance treatments like methadone in some cases. Should we throw Rush in prison for his illegal drug abuse? Although it may serve some sense of karmic justice (he has bitterly opposed needle exchange programs in the past) prison for drug abusers does nothing to solve the real problem. If anything, treating already troubled individuals like criminals only increases their need to self-medicate; the 'punishment' model of drug control inevitably does more harm than good.
Still, Rush (and those around him) need to ask themselves some hard questions. Does he deserve to be arrested for his drug use/abuse? If not, then why should any drug user have to face that sort of humiliation and injury to reputation/freedom/employability? Should we arrest and imprison the people who supplied Rush with his drugs? The prison sentences for the sorts of quantities allegedly involved are severe indeed. Do any of his friends deserve to lose a decade of their lives for having helped him ease his pain? They were surely drug dealers by any definition. And yet, if they do not deserve long months and years in cages with rapists and murders, then why does the next drug dealer deserve it? In spite of the rhetoric, they are only giving people what they want; the relationship between dealer and user is not inherently predatory or exploitive.
Rush will return to the air, and when he does, I hope to hear what he has to say. This experience will not leave him unchanged...or unscarred. Even if he pretends to the end that his illegal drug use was only about treating physical pain from a medical problem, deep down he now knows what it's all about. He will never forget that warm glow and release from all cares that comes from opiates seeping through your bloodstream, that sense of peace and inner strength. And he will never forget the craving...the pains both physical and psychological. I wish him well. I hope he makes it past this. But he will never view the drug problem or the drug war in the same way again, having lost the indulgent ignorance of the masses that allows them to pretend that drug use and abuse are merely the result of people who are lazy and weak or stupid.