John Tierney has a good column in today’s New York Times called Punishing Pain.

It’s about Richard Paey of Zephyrhills, Florida, who suffers from crippling nerve pain and multiple sclerosis. He is currently serving a 25-year minimum sentence for forging Percocet prescriptions, an accusation he denies. The prosecutors admits the sentence is harsh for a 46-year-old family man with no criminal record, but he intimates that Paey’s lengthy sentence is his own fault for refusing to plead to a lesser charge.

As Tierney explains, Mr. Paey attracted the attention of authorities because of his high consumption of prescription opiates:

The problem was getting the medicine from doctors who are afraid of the federal and local crusades against painkillers. Mr. Paey managed to find a doctor willing to give him some relief, but it was a “vegetative dose,” in his wife’s words.

“It was enough for him to lay in bed,” Mrs. Paey said. “But if he tried to sit through dinner or use the computer or go to the kids’ recital, it would set off a crisis, and we’d be in the emergency room.

We kept going back for more medicine because he wasn’t getting enough.”As he took more pills, Mr. Paey came under surveillance by police officers who had been monitoring the prescriptions. Although they found no evidence that he’d sold any of the drugs, they raided his home and arrested him.

What followed was a legal saga pitting Mr. Paey against his longtime doctor (and a former friend of the Paeys), who denied at the trial that he had given Mr. Paey some of the prescriptions. Mr. Paey maintains that the doctor did approve the disputed prescriptions, and several pharmacists backed him up at the trial. Mr. Paey was convicted of forging prescriptions.

He was subject to a 25-year minimum penalty because he illegally possessed Percocet and other pills weighing more than 28 grams, enough to classify him as a drug trafficker under Florida’s draconian law (which treats even a few dozen pain pills as the equivalent of a large stash of cocaine).

Patients aren’t the only victims of draconian anti-diversion efforts. Last year I wrote about how overzealous enforcement of narcotic regulations is undermining doctors’ ability to practice evidence-based medice, i.e., to relieve the suffering of their patients according to prevailing scientific and ethical standards of care.

I hope to blog more about the War on Some Drugs during my stint at the Washington Monthly.

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