Rush Limbaugh may not be arrested, let alone spend time behind bars, for illegally buying narcotic painkillers. "We're not sure whether he will be charged," a law enforcement source told CNN earlier this month. "We're going after the big fish, both the suppliers and the sellers."
If the conservative radio commentator escapes serious legal consequences, there will be speculation about whether a pill popper who wasn't a wealthy celebrity would have received such lenient treatment. Yet the distinction between dealer and user drawn by CNN's source is both widely accepted and deeply imbedded in our drug laws.
That doesn't mean it makes sense. If drug use is the evil the government wants to prevent, why punish the people who engage in it less severely than the people who merely assist them? That's like giving a murderer a lighter sentence than his accomplice.
Another argument for sending Limbaugh to jail was suggested by the talk radio king himself. Newsday columnist Ellis Henican has called attention to remarks Limbaugh made in 1995 concerning the disproportionate racial impact of the war on drugs.
"What this says to me," Limbaugh told his radio audience, "is that too many whites are getting away with drug use….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."
Before we start building a boat for Limbaugh, perhaps we should consider arguments for letting him keep his freedom. The strongest is that it's nobody's business but his if he chooses to take hydrocodone and oxycodone, for whatever reason, as long as he's not hurting anyone else.
When the painkiller story broke, the New York Daily News reported that Limbaugh's lawyers "refused to comment on the accusations and said any 'medical information' about him was private and not newsworthy." But on his show the next day, Limbaugh already was moving away from that position, promising to tell his listeners "everything there is."
A week later, he announced that he had started taking opioids "some years ago" for post-surgical pain, and "this medication turned out to be highly addictive." He said he was entering treatment to "once and for all break the hold this highly addictive medication has on me."
By emphasizing the addictive power of narcotics, Limbaugh suggested that the drugs made him do it, belying his declaration that "I take full responsibility for my problem." He also reinforced the unreasonable fear of opioids that results in disgraceful undertreatment of pain in this country. Contrary to Limbaugh's implication, research during the last few decades has found that people who take narcotics for pain relief rarely become addicted to their euphoric effects.
Limbaugh's quick switch from privacy claim to public confession was reminiscent of Bill Bennett's humiliating retreat on the issue of his gambling. Before renouncing the habit, the former drug czar noted that losing large sums of money on slots and video poker hadn't "put my family at risk." Nor does it seem that the time Bennett spent in casinos interfered with his family or professional life. It certainly did not keep him away from TV cameras and op-ed pages.
Likewise, drug use did not stop Limbaugh from signing an eight-year contract reportedly worth $285 million in 2001, or from maintaining a demanding schedule that included three hours on the radio five days a week, or from retaining his status as the nation's leading talk radio host, reaching nearly 20 million listeners on some 600 stations. His case illustrates the distinction between the strength of one's attachment to a substance and its practical impact, which is only made worse by drug laws that transform private problems into public scandals.
Whatever toll Limbaugh's drug habit may have taken on his personal life, it does not seem to have affected his professional performance. If his former housekeeper hadn't ratted on him, we might never have known about all those pills.
I'd say that's how it should have been, except that Limbaugh seems to prefer a different approach. "If people are violating the law by doing drugs," he told his listeners in 1995, "they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up." Maybe the government should respect his wishes.