Addicts should all be as lucky as Limbaugh

October 16, 2003|By Dan Rodricks

RUSH LIMBAUGH got caught and got gone - to a treatment program to try to break his addiction to OxyContin. He's lucky - and not only because he can afford to take a month off from work and pay for professional treatment while sympathetic fans pray for his health. Limbaugh is lucky because he didn't accidentally overdose and die.

Two cousins, Nicholas Perkins and Joshua Jones, used the same drug - the addictive painkiller known as "hillbilly heroin" - in a house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on a Monday in August and died. Perkins' mother, Sherry Perkins, told the Easton Star-Democrat that her son and her nephew took OxyContin, a pharmacological kin to heroin, as "an experimental type of thing." They apparently overdosed. Their bodies were discovered in the Perkins home in Caroline County on Aug. 4. What a horrific nightmare for that family.

Nicholas Perkins had purchased a car not long before his death. "He and Josh were going to go places in that car," Sherry Perkins said.

The cousins were both 18 years old.

It's that age group - older teens, early 20s - that has been experimenting with OxyContin for the past few years, crushing it and firing it, crushing it and snorting, sometimes just popping it. The cutting of the pills apparently eliminates the time-release quality of OxyContin and accelerates its effect.

This drug, which first appeared in American households as a legal, prescription narcotic to relieve pain, has been showing up more and more on the radar screens of addiction counselors and police in suburban and rural areas, from the Eastern Shore to the Appalachians. It has slipped into use in Harford and Howard counties. It is being used by experimenters and longtime addicts both.

"Our biggest pattern shift has been that of OxyContin," Lt. Randall R. Jones, commander of the Anne Arundel County vice-narcotics unit, told The Sun in August, after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported slippage in the Baltimore area's promising trend away from drug abuse.

The number of reports of abuse of prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, rose by 47 percent in the Baltimore area between 2001 and last year, the federal government reported, part of a national trend.

Who knew all this, besides experts in the field - cops and counselors - before Limbaugh's announcement last week? Let's be honest. We don't pay attention to this stuff until it's in our faces or in our homes. Millions of Americans live in the 51st state - the state of denial - when it comes to that odd thing mentioned above, "suburban and rural drug abuse."

Most Americans - and, more specifically, suburban Marylanders - probably find that phrase oxymoronic. They connect drug addiction with the city and with heroin and cocaine - not with the communities in which they live, and not with "prescription pain medication." But that's not reality.

When Mayor Martin O'Malley ordered Baltimore police to crack down on the worst drug corners in the city, 50 percent to 75 percent of the people caught trying to buy drugs came from the suburbs, most of them from Baltimore County, according to the city health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

Of course, there are heroin and cocaine addicts in the city - about one in 10 of our citizens, by one estimate, a few years ago - but what have we done about it?

Look at the record. It's really miserable. There has been an epoch of drug addiction, drug commerce and commensurate violence in Baltimore, spanning three decades, even longer, and only in the past few years have we smartened up and put serious money into drug treatment for the uninsured addict.

It was Rush Limbaugh's hero, Ronald Reagan, who brought us, in the 1980s, the war on drugs and a 25 percent cut in federal funding of drug treatment.

"It would be hard to think of an area of U.S. social policy that has failed more completely than the war on drugs," Michael Massing wrote in his important 1998 book, The Fix, which chronicled the nation's approach to drug addiction from the Nixon administration through the Clinton years. Having spent billions upon billions to fight drug trafficking in the streets and at the borders, having filled the prisons with thousands of addicts and addict-dealers, we still ended up in the new millennium with millions of hard-core abusers.

The answer to all that was not more incarceration, but more treatment. Even Richard Nixon understood that - and apparently better than any president since.

In the Reagan years, the law-and-order, prison-building crowd shaped the nation's drug policy, and even Democrats, Bill Clinton foremost, took a walk on the more-treatment concept to avoid a soft-on-crime rap.

It's the compassion his many fans feel for Rush Limbaugh that has been missing from the nation's approach toward the multitudes of poor men and women, from city and suburb, who have lived with severe addictions for so many years and who still don't have adequate opportunity to break their habits.

"Our biggest need is still residential treatment centers for the uninsured," says Beilenson. "If we had 1,000 more beds [for in-patient drug treatment] like Rush is getting, we'd reach our goals."

Prescription painkiller or crack cocaine - it shouldn't matter. City or suburb - it shouldn't matter. Millionaire broadcaster, middle-class suburban teen-ager or indigent Baltimorean - it shouldn't matter. They all have the same problem, they should all get the same treatment.

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