Turn World of Hurt Into a World of Good

Karl Fleming, a former Newsweek magazine and CBS journalist, regularly attends 12-step meetings in Los Angeles.

Rush Limbaugh is out of rehab and will be back on the air Monday. People seem to fall into two camps on his situation.

Some are gleeful at the thought Limbaugh might be going to jail. After all, they say, he's sneeringly derided other celebrity drug users, like Darryl Strawberry and Kurt Cobain, for being weak. And, as he told his television audience in 1995, "Too many whites are getting away with drug use.... The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river." His defenders say Limbaugh should be judged by a different standard. He inadvertently got addicted while using a legal drug prescribed by his doctor. He's not like those immoral losers who used illegal drugs recreationally, and then got hooked.

But let's tell it like it is: Limbaugh is, by any standard, an addict. And I ought to know. It takes one to know one, and I am one. I and others who have an opinion based on fact and not prejudice know that whether you're snorting coke, smoking marijuana, shooting heroin, drinking Scotch or swallowing pills, if you're doing it and can't stop, then you're an addict. If we are to believe the evidence his maid turned over to police, Limbaugh may have committed felonies if, as alleged, he used her as his connection to buy thousands of prescription pills illegally -- mostly Vicodin and the highly addictive OxyContin. Judged by his own harsh standard, Limbaugh should do the five years he could get if convicted in Florida for felony possession (or as much as 30 years for illegal trafficking).

I have disagreed with practically everything Limbaugh has ever said. And it's a fact he has behaved hypocritically on the drug issue. Still, I feel compassion for him, and I do not believe that jail is the appropriate societal response to whatever he may have done to get his drugs.

I've have been away from Jack Daniel's and "recreational" drugs for almost 16 years. And I understand -- as do nearly all recovering addicts, alcoholics and experts -- something Limbaugh hasn't understood: No amount of willpower or moral character can help him stop and stay stopped.

Over the years that I have remained in a 12-step program, I've seen priests, rabbis, combat fighter pilots, cops, championship athletes, entrepreneurs and countless others with strong moral character and unusual courage rendered totally powerless to break their drinking and drug habits on their own -- not even when they faced ruination, insanity, imprisonment and death.

Limbaugh exemplifies this hard truth. He apparently, time and again, risked his career, his health, his wealth and even his freedom to keep on taking pills. This latest 30-day stay in a treatment center was his third time in such a place. Up to now, he has been unable to stop, despite what I am sure was tremendous effort and willpower on his own -- and tremendous exposure to risk.

I am sure he will have been told in treatment, as the rest of us were told, that the odds are stacked heavily against his recovery, that an appallingly low percentage of alcoholics and addicts stays clean and sober and that virtually none can do so with a "white knuckle" approach. But he's also been told that he has a fighting chance if he is willing to be completely honest with himself and stick with a 12-step program.

He will have heard that he is wired differently than "normal" people. He will have been informed that nonaddictive people can have a martini, smoke a joint, do a line or pop a pill and stop, but that addicts have no defense against the second, third or 100th one. They can't stop once they start.

He will, like the rest of us, have heard that in order to defend against the first pill, he'll have to change his entire way of thinking. He'll have been told he can't afford the resentments (they are like acid; they eat the container), shame, guilt, dishonesty, cruelty and secrets that so-called normal people can get away with. This is because once the physical craving has abated, we alcoholics and addicts have to learn how to live comfortably with unresolved problems, because it's internal discomfort that makes us want to blunt the pain with drugs or drink. But he'll have heard over and over that sobriety is fun, that the 12-step program teaches you how to be happy, so that you don't need a drink or a pill.

He will have heard that though he is not responsible for the way he is wired, he can be and should be responsible for his recovery. He will in all likelihood have heard that his addiction is a shame, but that it shouldn't be a crime, that he is not a bad person trying to be good, just a sick person trying to get well.

State and federal prisons and local jails house roughly 450,000 "bad" people sent there for drug offenses, and more than 40% of drug offenders in state prisons -- 105,000 -- are there for possession and possession with intent to sell, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project. That number includes many hooked on the same drugs that got Limbaugh in their grip. California has 14,235 people in prison for drug possession, and another 34,850 behind bars for selling drugs, done mostly to support their own habits. The cost now is $28,440 a year to house someone in a California prison. Most of the drug users will be back, year after expensive year, unless they are offered and accept effective alternative treatment.

California's Proposition 36, which allows judges to sentence first- and second-time drug users to recovery programs instead of jail, is a good step in the right direction. But the need is still great. A report by the state's Little Hoover Commission released last week noted that while three-quarters of California's 160,000 prisoners have drug or alcohol problems, only 6% of them get treatment while incarcerated.

With his national radio platform and his ability to sway people, Limbaugh could make a real difference in this country by persuading the public and politicians that offering more recovery programs as an alternative to prison is a common-sense solution -- though not a cure-all to be sure -- to our national plague of drugs and alcohol. He could give politicians the courage to divert much of the money we now spend on interdiction and incarceration to treatment and education, especially to acquaint kids in schools with the warning signs of addiction before they start experimenting.

If Limbaugh is like the rest of us who've been where he recently has, he's probably felt pretty ashamed of himself for not being able to quit, for not being a real man. I hope he isn't still. I hope he is feeling sympathy for himself. And I hope he is beginning to feel empathy instead of contempt for others who are struggling against addiction. If he does, he will in my view become a true warrior for a morally good, effective and fiscally sane cause, and thereby become a true compassionate conservative.

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