Tuesday, July 19, 2005

War on Drugs Gone Wrong

John Tierney is getting a lot of attention for his piece on "Punishing Pain", in which he tangentially addresses Florida's bizarre, over-the-top drug laws. I do have a criticism of the piece, as in order to imply the innocence of the subject of his piece, a man who is presently incarcerated for forging prescriptions for narcotic medications, he effectively accuses the man's doctor of writing improper prescriptions and of committing perjury. Such an implication is not necessary to his point, which is that you shouldn't have to risk incarceration to obtain effective pain relief.

The Florida law itself is not about "punishing pain" - it's part of the "war on drugs"> Reading the statute, it appears that Florida tacked language pertaining to prescription opiats onto a clause that was written to address street drugs, specifically heroin. The "mixture containing"-type language the statute uses is common for laws addressing street drugs that are "cut" by drug dealers. The presumption that somebody with 28 grams of heroin intends to traffic drugs makes more sense than the notion that somebody with a bottle of 60 Percocet (about the number of pills that, during his period of addiction, Rush Limbaugh obtained via prescription in any given week, and not likely to be more than a month's supply for any chronic pain patient) is a drug dealer? That's a stretch. On the other hand, if you looked to the actual weight of the drug, let's say 10 mg Percocet, you would have to have about 2,800 pills to implicate the law, which would make a presumption of intent to deal seem more reasonable.

Whatever you think of the law, the outcome in this case seems unjust. It does not appear that Mr. Paey ever engaged in drug trafficking, or that he ever had any intention of doing so.
Scott Andringa, the prosecutor in the case, acknowledged that the 25-year mandatory penalty was harsh, but he said Mr. Paey was to blame for refusing a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail.
Well, no. The prosecutor picked the charge. The prosecutor chose to pursue Mr. Paey through three trials. And no matter to what degree the prosecutor felt bound by duty to do so, an absurd sentence mandated by law is not rendered less absurd by a defendant's unwillingness to plea bargain.

It is a shame that Tierney was so focused on the mistreatment of "sick people", as he could do more good by explicitly arguing for the introduction of some common sense into the "war on drugs". Or was that a deliberate choice - he doesn't want to challenge the war on drugs? I guess we'll find out over the next few years, if he continues to address these issues.


  1. I wonder what Jeb would have done, had his daughter been caught with 60 or so percocet hidden in her shoe instead of crack cocaine, while she was in rehab? Well, actually, what's to wonder? She wasn't charged even in relation to the crack.

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