Rep. Ron Paul, MD
The controversy surrounding popular radio host Rush Limbaugh’s use of the painkiller OxyContin hopefully will focus public attention on how the federal drug war threatens the effective treatment of chronic pain. In most cases patients are not high profile celebrities like Mr. Limbaugh, so doctors become the target of overzealous federal prosecutors. Faced with the failure of the war on drugs to eliminate drug cartels and kingpins, prosecutors and police have turned their attention to ordinary doctors prescribing perfectly legal drugs. Federal statutes designed for the prosecution of drug dealers are being abused to ensnare innocent doctors.
Do we really want the Drug Enforcement Administration jailing doctors for the alleged misdeeds of patients? Certainly some individuals abuse prescription pain killers, but federal agents are hardly qualified to decide what kind of drugs are appropriate for pain patients. Zealous prosecutors certainly show no interest in learning the basic facts of pain management.
OxyContin and other strong pain medications are not evil, but, like all powerful drugs, they can be used judiciously or abused. A compassionate society should rejoice that we have developed drugs that can help those in severe pain, rather than demonize those drugs because a tiny minority abuses them.
The real tragedy is that the federal government once again has interfered with the doctor-patient relationship. All decisions concerning appropriate medical treatment should be made between doctors and their patients, without government involvement. But, when threatened with criminal prosecution or loss of their medical licenses, many doctors simply have stopped prescribing powerful pain drugs – no matter how much their patients may need them. Some have even posted signs in their waiting rooms advising patients not to ask for OxyContin and similar drugs. It is shameful that government has created an atmosphere where doctors are afraid of exercising their medical judgment.
This harassment by law enforcement has forced some doctors to close their practices altogether, leaving their patients with nowhere to turn for pain relief. Is the government concerned about the terrible chilling effect caused by its crackdown on doctors? Hardly. In fact, the current attitude toward pain physicians is exemplified by Assistant US Attorney Gene Rossi’s statement that, “Our office will try our best to root out certain doctors like the Taliban.”
By waging this war on pain physicians, the government is condemning patients to either live with excruciating chronic pain or seek relief from other, less reliable, sources – such as street drug dealers. Of course pain drugs bought on the street likely will pose a greater risk of damaging a patient’s health than those obtained from a physician.
The sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship is being destroyed by federal bureaucrats, who have turned the drug war into a war on pain relief. Americans suffering from chronic pain and their doctors are the real victims of this unprincipled and medically unsound federal campaign.
April 20, 2004
Dr. Ron Paul is a Republican member of Congress from Texas.