Will Rush get the Noelle Bush or Ramah Combs treatment?

While it is usually unfair to exploit anybody’s misfortune, Rush Limbaugh’s prescription drug addiction case does warrant a look at whether the treatment he receives will be equal to what he advocates for others.

Before Limbaugh voluntarily checked himself into rehab, his former housekeeper accused him of using her to illegally purchase more than 30,000 prescription pills, including OxyContin – a powerful painkiller linked to increasing levels of illicit abuse. The question is not if Limbaugh made bad decisions – he did; he’s an admitted addict. The question is whether he will be “sent up” for them, thus fulfilling his own strategy for racial equality in drug sentencing.

The answer is most likely no. A wide disparity exists in the ways rich, well-connected drug offenders are treated, compared to their less-privileged counterparts. If recent history is any indication, Limbaugh’s experience will probably more closely resemble the case of Noelle Bush than that of Ramah Leon Combs.

Bush, daughter of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and niece of the president, was first arrested in January 2002 for allegedly attempting to purchase a widely abused anti-anxiety drug, Xanax, with a fake prescription. A Florida judge ordered Bush into a treatment program. While in rehab, she was arrested twice with controlled substances. In July 2002, she was jailed three days for possessing prescription pills at the center; the following October, she spent 10 days in jail for having crack cocaine. However, there were no more public incidents until this last August, when Bush’s rehabilitation stint was declared complete. The drug charges against her were dropped, and she was released.

Bush’s ordeal is a painful story of addiction, relapse, tough love and recovery. It is heartwarming she has been released to pursue a better path, but it is also a sharp contrast to the cold, heartless manner in which countless other drug offenders are treated by the criminal justice system.

Combs is one such person being punished far more heavily for bad decisions. Combs grew up the 10th of 13 children to an eastern Kentucky miner and former schoolteacher. The Combs family supplemented its meager income by tending a small farm, raising animals and hunting wildlife. Firearms were a fact of life for them; Comb never imagined this lifelong hobby of collecting guns would one day cause him to lose everything.

Combs was involved in a motorcycle accident in June 2000. He was released from the hospital with a prescription for OxyContin. The following January, Combs was arrested and later indicted on federal charges of trading his medication for a stolen firearm. Unable to afford a private attorney, Combs was appointed a public defender. His representation readily admitted to being a golf partner to both the prosecuting attorney and the judge in his case. Combs’ trial was held in Frankfort, Kentucky’s state capital rather than his native eastern Kentucky.

During the trial, Combs’ accuser repeatedly admitted to stealing firearms and trading them to various people, yet nobody but Combs was ever charged with a crime (not even the gun thief turned informant). The jury returned with a guilty verdict on four of the five counts, and without any prior convictions, Combs was sentenced to more than 31 years in a federal prison.

These two stories exhibit the widely disparate way in which the privileged and underprivileged are treated for indiscretions related to drug crimes. Drug charges currently account for more arrests each year than for any other type of violation in the United States. Yet while almost three in four American drug users are white, more than three-fourths of those serving time in prisons on a drug charge are black or Latin American. The injustices inherent in draconian drug laws magnify our society’s greater disparities. It is systemic that within the U.S. stratification of wealth and power, those who can afford justice get help, while those who cannot get crushed.

Limbaugh once postulated, “If people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused, and they ought to be convicted, and they ought to be sent up.” He further explained the racial disparity in drug sentencing by saying “too many whites are getting away with drug use.”

I would like to offer this message to Limbaugh: As your wealth and status carries you through this ordeal, as your private lawyers shield you from harsh prosecution and as your money buys you the best addiction services available, please think of those who do not get the treatment you are receiving. Please remember that in the past you defended the incarceration of more than half a million Americans for having troubles similar to yours. And when you overcome your demons and reach a healthy recovery, please think about just how fortunate you are and reconsider your views about the fairness of U.S. drug policy.

Jason Samuels welcomes comments at [email protected]