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Now, a Real Drug Challenge

October 14, 2003

Millions of "dittoheads" around the country will be in withdrawal this week, with their drug of choice -- conservative talk show king Rush Limbaugh -- gone from the airwaves for a 30-day stint in drug rehab. Limbaugh's announcement that he is seeking treatment for an addiction to pain medication followed claims by a former housekeeper that she spent years supplying him with black-market prescription narcotics. Lots of narcotics -- more than 30,000 hydrocodone, Lorcet and OxyContin tablets.

Limbaugh has not publicly responded to her allegations, but his admission of addiction last week unleashed snickers among liberals and contortions among conservatives, who were desperate to distinguish their hero's problem from the moral failings of those celebrity addicts that Limbaugh took glee in castigating. Internet muckraker Matt Drudge even offered this silver lining: "Imagine how good he did on the air on the medication. If we can get him off [drugs], it'll be a real challenge to the liberals in this country."

Forget about the challenge to liberals. Breaking the stranglehold of addiction will be challenge enough for Limbaugh. He's already been through two recovery programs and relapsed. Even the most intense residential programs offer only a 50% chance of recovery for prescription-drug addicts. And unlike many of those abusers, Limbaugh probably won't have to manage his recovery from jail. Although the allegations against him constitute a felony in his home state of Florida, officials rarely prosecute users except as leverage to bring in their dealers. Still, given the publicity in a state so tough that the governor let his own addict-daughter go to jail, it could be hard to justify giving Limbaugh a pass.

In fact, Limbaugh might insist on a little prison time, if he buys his own rhetoric. People who violate the law by using drugs ought to be sent "up the river," no matter their race or social class, Limbaugh has said. But is up the river the place for him? So far, there's been no public push for that.

When Limbaugh emerges from treatment this time around, perhaps he'll understand that he was no different from the addict on the street scrounging for his next fix. Maybe he can contribute something better than macho bluster to the debate over treatment of drug offenders -- a group that includes those offering medical marijuana to cancer patients and rich, white radio hosts trying to score pills in the parking lot of Denny's.

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