The War on Drugs Is a War on Doctors
by Rep. Ron Paul, MD
When we talk about the federal war on drugs, most people conjure up visions of sinister South American drug cartels or violent urban street gangs. The emerging face of the drug war, however, is not a gangster or a junkie: It’s your friendly personal physician in a white coat. Faced with their ongoing failure to curtail the illegal drug trade, federal drug agencies have found an easier target in ordinary doctors whose only crime is prescribing perfectly legal pain medication. By applying federal statutes intended for drug dealers, federal prosecutors are waging a senseless and destructive war on doctors. The real victims of the new campaign are not only doctors, but their patients as well.
Dr. Cecil Knox of Virginia is one recent victim of federal authorities, who cannot abide physicians using their own judgment when prescribing pain medication. Dr. Knox faces federal criminal charges for prescribing legal pain drugs, and tragically has been forced to spend several hundred thousand dollars defending himself. Virginia state authorities have neither charged him with a crime nor revoked his medical license, yet the federal government – which constitutionally has no authority to usurp state drug laws – perversely seeks to imprison Dr. Knox for life!
Even if Dr. Knox is acquitted of all charges, his life will never be the same. His professional reputation and clientele cannot be easily restored, and the enormous legal bills cannot be easily repaid. So whether federal prosecutors obtain a conviction of Dr. Knox or not, the message sent to other doctors is chillingly clear: prescribe the wrong drugs and we will destroy you. The end result is that doctors become afraid to prescribe pain medication, no matter how appropriate for a patient. The judgment of doctors has been replaced by the judgment of federal drug warriors.
Those who support the war on drugs may well change their views if one day they find themselves experiencing serious pain because of an accident or old age. By creating an atmosphere that regards all powerful pain medication as suspect, the drug warriors have forced countless Americans to live degraded, bedridden lives. Even elderly deathbed patients sometimes are denied adequate pain relief from reluctant doctors and nurses. It’s one thing to support a faraway drug campaign in Colombia or Afghanistan, but it’s quite another to watch a loved one suffering acute pain that could be treated. A sane, compassionate society views advances in medical science – particularly advances that relieve great suffering – as heroic. Instead, our barbaric drug war treats pain patients the same way it treats street junkies.
Doctors are not slaves, and they will not continue practicing medicine forever if the federal government insists on monitoring, harassing, fining, and even jailing them. Congress should take action to rein in overzealous prosecutors and law enforcement officials, and stop the harassment of legitimate physicians who act in good faith when prescribing pain relief drugs. Doctors should not be prosecuted for using their best medical judgment, nor should they be prosecuted for the misdeeds of their patients.
May 18, 2004
Dr. Ron Paul is a Republican member of Congress from Texas.