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Limbaugh Deserves Compassion, But So Do Others

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The moment that embattled conservative talk radio king, Rush Limbaugh admitted that he was hopelessly hooked on pain killing drugs and would check into a rehab center the sympathy applause from conservatives was deafening. At first glance, their applause seems disingenuous at best, and hypocritical at worst.

Many conservatives have railed at efforts by drug reformers who demand treatment, not jail for drug offenders. Indeed, Limbaugh has hardly been the voice of compassion toward drug users, especially minority drug users.

He once ranted to his 20 million radio listeners, that Blacks weren’t jailed in disproportionate numbers to Whites for drug offenses, and that the way to shut up those up who claim that they are is to send more White drug users up the river.

Though the double standard is glaring when the drug victim is a wealthy, staunch conservative, and a principal media booster of President Bush.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with Limbaugh's media and political boosters, and his adoring fans, cheering him for seeking help in his battle against addiction, and urging prosecutors not to bring charges. But they should do the same for the thousands of other drug offenders who need the same compassion and help as Limbaugh, and aren't high profile, bankable political and talk show commodities.

They are mostly poor, Black or Latino. Many of the more than one million Blacks that pack America's prisons are there for non-violent, drug-related crimes. It costs billions to keep them there.

Putting them behind bars instead of in treatment programs commonly reserved for pampered celebrities has had staggering consequences. It tears apart families and communities. It is the single biggest reason for the bloat in federal and state spending on prison construction, maintenance, and the escalation in the number of prosecutors needed to handle the flood of drug cases.

It effectively bars thousands of Blacks and Latinos from the polls in the handful of states that totally ban ex-felons from voting. Many of them were slapped with felonies for minor drug crimes.

Also, few Black and Latino drug offenders have the hefty cash it takes to stay a step ahead of the law by checking themselves into a pricey private drug rehab center. Most of them will not be cut the legal slack that Limbaugh so far has been cut. Following news leaks that he was under investigation for alleged illegal drug buys in Palm Beach, Florida where he lives in a palatial multi-million dollar mansion, the Palm Beach Post interviewed local criminal attorneys and former prosecutors.

All agreed that even though his maid publicly claimed that he used her to illegally procure drugs, and had emails documenting the buys, the chances of Limbaugh being prosecuted were slim to none. But what if Limbaugh were prosecuted?

If convicted under Florida’s mandatory sentencing law, he could face a sentence of up to five years, and lose his driver’s license for as long as two years. With much fanfare, Republican Governor Jeb Bush enacted that law at a mammoth anti-drug rally at the Orange Bowl in Miami in 1999. When he signed Florida’s mandatory sentencing law, Bush vowed that this would be a powerful weapon to combat illegal drug use.

The jails in Florida quickly filled with mostly Black and Latino drug offenders that were tried and sentenced under the law. But one of those who didn’t fill the jail was Noelle Bush.

Two years after her father signed the mandatory sentencing law, she was arrested on prescription fraud charges. Bush immediately pleaded for the public to show compassion and respect the family’s privacy.

The hope is the drug plight of Limbaugh and Bush could aid the mounting efforts of drug reform advocates to push Congress and state officials to eliminate the racially skewed disparity in the drug sentencing laws.

President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have made passing reference to the need to re-examine the effectiveness of the drug sentencing laws. Bush quickly joined the chorus of those who urged compassion for Limbaugh.

The widespread notoriety of their cases could also spur state legislators to dump, or at least modify their mandatory drug sentencing laws, and provide massive funding for treatment, not jail for non-violent, first time drug offenders.

Some cash strapped states; the most recent being Michigan, have taken action and modified their draconian drug laws to save money. In New York and California legislators and voters have opted for counseling, treatment, and prevention programs, not jail for first time offenders.

Some cynics claim that Limbaugh publicly announced his addiction as a ploy to avoid the scandal of prosecution and the disgrace of a jail sentence. That’s irrelevant.

Limbaugh’s drug tragedy is a cautionary lesson. Whether the admitted drug addict is a rich, conservative popular talk show host, fawned over by millions, or a poor Black or Latino, they both deserve the same public compassion.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).

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