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The Inalienable Right to Self-Medication


What’s lost in discussion of Rush Limbaugh’s alleged illegal use of painkillers is the inalienable right to medicate oneself, which is contained in the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. True, governments don’t recognize this right. Limbaugh himself has not recognized it. But as some conservatives say about the right to keep and bear arms, a right is a right even if the government doesn’t recognize it.

Limbaugh claims he became addicted to prescription painkillers after unsuccessful back surgery failed to stop his pain. Published reports say he purchased large quantities of pills illegally.

This is embarrassing to Limbaugh fans on several counts. He portrays himself as a paragon if not of virtue, then of self-mastery; he opposes law-breaking; and he is a devoted drug warrior, favoring jail terms for users as well as sellers.

Predictably, Limbaugh’s predicament has prompted some conservatives to discover distinctions they had hitherto overlooked. As columnist Ben Shapiro wrote on Townhall.com, “It is despicable how the media have equated prescription painkiller addiction with recreational drug addiction.”

We have grown accustomed to such simple-mindedness from conservatives when it comes to the persecution of drug users. In this regard, Jacob Sullum’s new book, Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, should be read by anyone looking for common sense on the subject.

As Sullum demonstrates, the distinction that Shapiro asserts is not obvious at all. Most people who use drugs recreationally are not addicts by any serious definition. They use drugs (including heroin and cocaine) moderately and responsibly—just as most drinkers use alcohol, which is potentially more harmful than many banned drugs. What’s more, they stop when they believe drugs interfere with more important things in life. They don’t come close to matching the addict stereotype.

This will surprise most people. Because such drugs are illegal, responsible users are invisible. They don’t talk about their habit, and the media don’t discuss them. All one hears about are the people who get in trouble, one way or another, with drugs. The skewed media accounts are buttressed by the incessant barrage of dishonest propaganda issuing from government agencies. (Everything said about illegal drugs was once said about alcohol.)

The one-sided, negative view that people are given about drugs is similar to the one-sided, negative view they are given about guns—something that conservatives, including Limbaugh, complain about. Yet they don’t realize that the same thing happens with drugs.

What about the people who use heroin or cocaine irresponsibly? First, they are a small minority. Second, the drug war doesn’t stop such people, but it can and does wreak social havoc. Third, contrary to the new conservative insight, they are not conceptually different from people who irresponsibly use prescription painkillers after back surgery.

Is there really a distinction between someone trying to escape a painful back and someone trying to escape a painful life? Doctors tell us that stress and anxiety can cause physical illness. So why is self-treating psychic pain so different from self-treating physical pain? The real distinction is between responsibility and irresponsibility, not between back pain and stress.

The word “addiction” is thrown around too casually. What does it mean to say that Rush Limbaugh is addicted to OxyContin or Vicodin? Presumably it means that if he stopped taking the drugs he’d miss them. But it doesn’t mean he is a slave to them. He was able to function for five or six years while regularly using the drugs. Moreover, he chose to walk into a medical facility knowing he would not have access to them for 30 days. He opted to accept whatever discomfort that will ensue because he prefers the outcome (which may include leniency from the authorities). As psychologist Jeffrey Schaler says, “Addiction is a choice.”

The Limbaugh case exposes the war on drug users as a religious crusade against people who use what Sullum calls politically incorrect drugs in the manner of their own choosing. Conservatives who still care about individual liberty should defect and demand the repeal of prohibition.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.