Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Rush and Drugs -- the Conservative Dilemma

Guest Post by Steve Dasbach

Conservative icon Rush Limbaugh has confirmed the rumors - he's addicted to prescription pain medication. It's obvious that he has roken our nation's drug laws. Which poses an interesting dilemma for his fellow conservatives.

According to Rush and other conservative drug warriors, "drug users ought to be convicted and sent up" as Rush himself put it. Sent up, as in sent to prison.

So here's the conservative dilemma. Should Rush, a self-admitted "drug user" be "convicted and sent up?"

If they say yes, they're advocating silencing the most powerful and influential conservative voice in America -- imprisoning a man they admire and respect. If they say no, they're contradicting everything they've claimed for years about the need to fight the War on Drugs with stiff criminal penalties, including jail time, for drug users.

Do conservatives think that society will be better off if their friend and idol Rush serves a long stretch behind bars as "punishment" for his drug use? Or that a long prison term will somehow "rehabilitate" him? If not, then why would they advocate such treatment for the sons and daughters and friends of ordinary Americans?

Conservatives argue that stiff criminal penalties, including jail time, are necessary to deter drug use. But such penalties failed to deter Rush, a strong willed individual who preaches self-reliance, responsibility, and the importance of the rule of law for three hours every day. If draconian drug laws and mandatory minimum sentences didn't deter him, how likely are they to deter lesser mortals?

One presumes that conservatives embrace the ideals expressed in the Pledge of Allegiance, including "justice for all". That means the same laws are supposed to apply to everyone, whether it's a wealthy celebrity like Rush or a faceless inner-city man mired in poverty. In fact, Rush himself has advocated jail time for athletes and Hollywood celebrities who use drugs.

So if conservatives still believe that drug users should be sent to prison, doesn't that mean that Rush should be imprisoned too?

Some conservatives seem to be having problems coming to grips with this dilemma. When the bombastic Ann Coulter was repeatedly asked if she thought Rush should be sent to prison, the best she could come up with a lame comment that if her mother committed murder, she wouldn't want her sent to prison. Sorry, but that really isn't an answer.

Another prominent conservative focused on the fact that Rush got hooked on legal drugs, conveniently ignoring the fact that he bought them illegally, and that the drug laws conservatives support make no such distinctions. As far as the law is concerned, Rush is no different than the person who buys marijuana, cocaine, or heroin.

So how will conservatives resolve this dilemma? Some will probably decide to sacrifice Rush on the altar of principle. Others will demonstrate by their actions that they are simply hypocrites. They'll support Rush in his time of need while continuing to advocate prison for other drug users.

But perhaps, just perhaps, Rush's addiction will be the catalyst that prompts fair-minded conservatives to reevaluate their unquestioning support for the War on Drugs. Perhaps they'll decide that if it makes sense to let Rush decide for himself how to deal with his drug problem, perhaps it makes sense to let other drug users make their own decisions as well.

This isn't an abstract issue for me. As the father of four nearly grown children, I've had to face the challenges posed by tobacco, alcohol, and drug availability that all parents must confront. Of all the fears associated with confronting these issues, my greatest fear has always been the one Rush's friends are confronting now - the possibility that someone I care for will make a bad choice and have their lives destroyed by the criminal justice system that is supposed to protect us.

Nothing will be gained by sending Rush to prison. Nothing is gained by imprisoning other less-famous drug users either. If Rush's fellow conservatives resolve their dilemma with compassion, perhaps we can all agree to stop treating drug use as a crime and stop wasting lives. And we can continue to enjoy "Excellence in Broadcasting" for many years to come.


Steve Dasbach was National Chairman of the Libertarian party, 1993-1998 and National Director of the Libertarian Party, 2000-2002.