Rush to revenge?

Rush Limbaugh is obviously a hypocrite, but that's no reason to punish him for a victimless crime.

Published October 15, 2003 7:29PM (EDT)

Free Rush Limbaugh! Sorry to betray such a low level of lust for revenge, but as a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, I am duty bound to defend the rights of even those I loathe. Not that Limbaugh, the talk-show bully, has been charged with a crime or sentenced to jail time. However, as an admitted addict who allegedly purchased drugs illegally, his freedom, were he an ordinary guy on the street, would be very much in jeopardy. In Florida, where Limbaugh allegedly committed his felony, the crime of purchasing large amounts of powerful narcotics without a prescription can get you a five-year sentence if prosecutors are so inclined. That is, if they are in a mood to be the tough anti-drug warriors that the Limbaughs of this world have long applauded.

Credit Limbaugh for riling up the public and politicians to imprison many addicts whose behavior was no worse than what he has admitted to. As he once told his radio audience: "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."

Limbaugh was an equal-opportunity drug warrior who, in response to the charge that drug laws singled out African-Americans, said in an interview in 1995: "Too many whites are getting away with drug use. 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."

Three years later, he is alleged to have begun his own white-man's odyssey into a life of addiction and crime.

Let me be on record as being strongly opposed to sending Limbaugh up the river, even though that is the penalty he wished to inflict on others. Just chalk me up as one of those bleeding-heart liberals who believe that drug addiction should be treated as a medical rather than a criminal matter.

If convicted and imprisoned, Limbaugh could come back a hardened criminal, most likely having learned only how to get away with convenience-store stickups to support his habit. Although in prison he might also be educated by fellow inmates to drop the OxyContin that he allegedly was hooked on, for heroin, which has a similar high but may be less damaging to the body. We don't know why he didn't turn to pot for relief, but I suspect that prescription-drug abuse is just more acceptable in right-wing circles.

But those are his choices, and I support his right as an adult to pick his own poison. I don't endorse the tough-love hard line that because Limbaugh has failed in his two previous attempts to end his addiction by voluntarily checking into a medical program, he shouldn't be given a third chance. He should get as many more as he needs. As one who has had bouts of addiction with truly dangerous drugs -- good red wines and only the most aged of Scotch -- I don't want them throwing me into jail just because I fall off the wagon.

Although Limbaugh is obviously a hypocrite, that is no reason to compound the madness of our drug problem by punishing him in what seems to have been a victimless crime -- unless he pressured his housekeeper/supplier into the Florida narco-underworld, which would make him far more culpable. But we liberals believe in innocent until proved guilty.

Limbaugh's experience is the best argument against the demonization of all junkies -- this one throughout his addiction held a big job and presumably paid a lot in taxes. The considerable harm he inflicts daily on the larger society can hardly be blamed on his addiction. The drugs may have even tempered his verbal brutishness. In any case, there is no evidence that the drugs caused him to daily savage others -- he was equally offensive before and during his drug abuse. To put it another way, his drug use, if it has caused pain to others, is the least of his crimes.

But why be mean about it and wallow in the suffering of another?

Let's hope that Limbaugh emerges from this experience more tolerant of the weaknesses of others. Perhaps he could then prevail upon his buddy, Attorney General John Ashcroft, to end his vicious crackdown on cancer and AIDS patients attempting to use marijuana to manage their pain without running afoul of the law.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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