David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]
One thing my friends and colleagues would say about me, if you asked, is that I'm a stickler for "keeping it clean." It's not about the drugs, it's about justice and compassion and truth and making the world a better place for all people. I was never into drugs growing up, so why start now? Still, there's a first time for everything, and events that took place earlier today prove it. Today I purchased, and am considering using, my first controlled substance.
Don't get too excited yet. This morning I had a long-neglected wisdom tooth pulled out, and as a reward undergoing surgery, albeit minor, I received a prescription for Tylenol 3, which primarily consists of acetaminophen but also contains small quantities of the opiate drug codeine. My controlled substance prescription was offered, written and filled without controversy, no questions asked.
Ironically, I might not even wind up using it. The extraction went about as smoothly as it could have, and most of my discomfort is from the spots where they injected the novocaine (a derivative of cocaine). Don't ask me for any of my prescription, though; it's only been a few hours and I want to make sure I have it if it turns out I need it.
Actually, the real reason I can't give you any is that to do so would be a federal crime. I couldn't help but think this morning of Dr. Morrell, a physician from Michigan I met a few years ago at a Drug Policy Foundation conference. Dr. Morrell had spent five years in federal prison for what at the worst amounted to technical violations in the use of his DEA controlled substances license at a public health clinic in a low income neighborhood.
The substance that sent Dr. Morrell to the penitentiary was the same one I obtained so easily this morning, Tylenol 3. Under federal mandatory minimum statutes, prosecutors were able to charge him based not only on the quantity of codeine contained in the pills, but on the pills' total weight, consisting mostly of the acetaminophen found in ordinary, over-the-counter Tylenol. The judge was required by federal law to sentence him based on that enormously inflated quantity, hence the five year sentence. Dr. Morrell's colleague, if I remember correctly, was charged for an even larger number of pills, and got ten years and is probably still behind bars.
No wonder so many doctors and pharmacists are afraid to provide the much larger quantities of much more potent pain relievers needed by the true pain patients -- the patients with truly excruciating levels going on for years, the kind of pain that can make you unable to function or even prompt suicide. I couldn't help but think of my pain activist friends who went for months or even years before they found a doctor willing to take the chance, and they are the lucky ones.
I also couldn't help but wonder if a black man on the other side of Washington getting his tooth pulled would be offered the same prescription I was, as easily or with as much faith in his propriety. I don't know the answer to that last question with any certainty; it may be that it would vary from clinic to clinic, doctor to doctor or patient to patient.
What I do know is that the handful of white pills in my backpack should under no circumstances be a pretext for the government to ruin people's lives, whether their use, exchange or prescription has been properly authorized or not. I do know that the existence of laws empowering government officials to do so based on those white pills is extraordinarily dangerous and prone to corruption and abuse. And I know that as a result of such laws, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people -- people even the drug warriors didn't intend to target -- have been left without the relief, the lifeline, that these and other medications could and should provide them.
The rest of us can't quite claim to "feel their pain," certainly I can't based on one bad tooth. Even my friend's friend, who couldn't get pain meds for a broken nose because the doctor who set it believed he'd use them to "get high," maybe can't quite understand what severe, chronic pain means or what the drug war is doing to patients living with it.
But we can understand the problem, and we can be patient and supportive of those suffering severe pain and who need these medications; and we can work to get the DEA out of our doctor's offices and to end the police state of medicine plaguing this country.
(See http://www.drcnet.org/gateway/pain.html for an overview of the impact of the war on drugs on pain treatment.)