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Paey: I’m being given access because I’m a high profile case.
reason: So still today, a chronic pain patient not named Richard Paey would have the same problems you did obtaining these drugs at the doses they need, and might face the same sort of prosecution if they tried to get them?
Paey: That’s right.
reason: Governor Crist and Florida Attorney
General McCullom both not only voted for your pardon, they both
expressed regret that perhaps mandatory minimums and zero tolerance
drug laws had gone too far—pretty notable statements coming from
two stalwart advocates of the drug war. Are you aware of any
efforts by them or the Florida legislature to reform these
Paey: I don’t know if those two in particular are doing anything. I know that advocates here in Florida including people from Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the November Coalition are pushing legislation to deal with the problem. One bill would I think would remove prescribed opiates from the drug trafficking statutes. I believe the November Coalition wants to use my case as a platform to go after mandatory minimums both in Florida and in other states—to point to my case as an example of the absurd results that can come from these laws. I’m not aware of anything the governor or anyone in Tallahassee in particular are doing to remedy the problem that brought my case to their attention.
reason: Many people have compared your case to that of Rush Limbaugh. Some have said Limbaugh was let off because of his political affiliation. But reason’s Jacob Sullum has suggested Limbaugh was let off because he played the drug warrior’s game—he admitted he was an “addict,” and took his punishment. But you refused to say you were an addict, or concede that you’d done anything wrong. You insisted you needed painkillers to live a normal life. Sullum believes that’s why Limbaugh got a slap on the wrist, while you got 25 years.
Paey: I think Sullum’s take is pretty accurate. Mr. Limbaugh chose to label himself an addict. What I didn’t understand when I went to trial is that there is a tremendous fear of addiction in this country. The prosecutor in my case didn’t see me as a patient, despite incontrovertible evidence that I was indeed a patient with a long history of medical records showing that I needed this medication. In the prosecutor’s mind, this was simply too much medication for one patient. He didn't want to hear about tolerance or high-dose therapy. The fact that I had taken the medication for more than a few years made me an addict in his mind. That became the prosecution’s theme—that I was an “addict.” He repeated the term “drug addict” eight times in his closing argument. He didn’t call me a “chronic pain patient.” Even though he was forced to recognize during the trial that I had legitimate medical problem, and had a legitimate medical history, I was still an “addict."
This is a serious problem we have in this country—this fear of addiction, and how we perceive the use of prescription drugs. There are lots of myths and misconceptions out there.
Whoever was counseling Rush Limbaugh gave him good advice. Admitting he was an addict played to his favor. I was convicted because the prosecutor hammered away at the jury that I was an addict and that my doctor was a pusher. I was sort of blindsided when the prosecutor started to make that argument—that I was nothing more than an addict. I can’t think of a worse slur to attach to a person.
reason: And once you were in prison, the state of Florida then administered an opioid painkiller to you at doses higher than those for which the same state had just labeled you an addict and convicted you.
Paey: Right. It became a comedy of bureaucracies. One agency prosecutes me for taking too much medication. And that was their explanation—that my dose was too high for one person to be taking, therefore I must be selling it. Even though they conceded they had no evidence of that. Then I get to prison, and the doctors examine my records and my medical history, and they decide that as doctors, they have to give me this medication, and in fact it was in higher doses than what I’d been getting before.
It certainly was an irony that I was prosecuted for taking too much medication, then the state went ahead and gave me more once I was in prison. And I think that irony made many people take a second look at my situation. It raised a red flag in many peoples’ minds that something strange was going on, here.
reason: What was the first thing you did after you were released?
Paey: It occurred so fast, and it was so unexpected. I think Linda and I both thought it would take weeks. And after the pardon, they rushed me out of the prison. The first thing I did was grab my kids and hug them. Knowing that I’m here, at home, was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. We’re still in a kind of euphoria. I have to keep reminding my family that I’m here, and they have to remind me that I’m not in prison anymore. We still have a hard time believing this is happening—that this isn’t imagination. I’m just thrilled to be home with my family.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason.