Drug Policy

Rant: Drug Rush

Limbaugh to listeners: I belong in jail!

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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 in early October. "We're going after the big fish, both the suppliers and the sellers."

Following up on a story The National Enquirer broke on October 2, CNN reported that the conservative radio commentator's name had come up during "an investigation of a black market drug ring in South Florida," where Limbaugh has a home. A former housekeeper told the Enquirer she had sold him tens of thousands of hydrocodone and oxycodone pills during a four-year period.

If Limbaugh 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. Still, the distinction between dealer and user drawn by CNN's source is both widely accepted and deeply embedded 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. In an October 3 column, Newsday's Ellis Henican cited remarks Limbaugh made in 1995 concerning the drug war's disproportionate racial impact. "What this says to me," Limbaugh told his listeners, "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 the arguments for letting him keep his freedom. The strongest is that it's nobody's business but his if he chooses to pop Lorcet and OxyContin, 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."

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 he was entering treatment for addiction to painkillers he began taking after back surgery. "I take full responsibility for my problem," he declared, while blaming his situation on "highly addictive medication" (thereby reinforcing the opiophobia that has led to scandalous undertreatment of pain in this country).

The quick switch from privacy claim to public confession is 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 personal 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 about 600 stations. If his 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 radio audience 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.