Zero-Tolerance Causes Lots Of Pain

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This column was written by Radley Balko.
Today, Richard Paey sits in a wheelchair behind high walls and razor wire in a high-security prison near Daytona Beach. Paey is a 46-year-old father of three, and a paraplegic. His condition is the result of a car accident, a botched back surgery, and a case of multiple sclerosis — three setbacks that have left him in a chronic, debilitating state of pain. After moving to Florida from New Jersey, Paey found it increasingly difficult to get prescriptions for the pain medication he needed to function normally — to support his family, and to be a parent to his children.

Paey's difficulties finding treatment were in large part due to federal- and state-government efforts to prevent the illegal use — or "diversion," as the feds call it — of prescription pain medicine. Doctors today face fines, suspension, the loss of license or practice, the seizure of property, or even prison time in the event that drug cops (most of whom have no medical training) decide they are prescribing too many painkillers. As a result, physicians are understandably apprehensive about aggressively treating pain.

Like many pain patients, Paey found himself on the blunt end of such policies. He went from doctor to doctor, looking for someone to give him the medication he needed. By the time he eventually turned to his old New Jersey doctor for help, he had already attracted the attention of Florida drug-control authorities. What happened next is disputed, but it ended with Paey getting arrested, getting his home raided, and eventually getting convicted of drug distribution.

Paey insists his old doctor wrote him the prescriptions he needed. The Florida pharmacists who testified at his trial back him up. But the doctor says he forged the prescriptions. For his part, Paey holds no animus against his former doctor. Cops gave the doctor a devil's bargain — give Paey up, or face 25-years-to-life imprisonment for the excessive proscribing of painkillers. Paey still maintains the prescriptions were legitimate, but understands why his doctor turned against him.

The larger issue, of course, is why a man who is clearly not an addict (he wasn't taking the medication to get high) and had a legitimate use for the medication wasn't given access to what he needed in the first place.

State prosecutors concede there's no evidence Paey ever sold or gave his medication away. Nevertheless, under draconian drug-war statutes, these prosecutors could pursue distribution charges against him based solely on the amount of medication he possessed (the unauthorized possession of as few as 60 tablets of some pain medications can qualify a person as a "drug trafficker").

After three trials, Richard Paey was convicted and put in prison for 25 years, effectively a life sentence for someone in his condition. Ironically, the state of Florida now pays for a morphine pump connected to Paey's spine which delivers the same class of medication at the same doses the state of Florida told him wasn't necessary, and put him in prison for trying to obtain.

Prosecutors originally offered Paey a plea bargain that would have helped him avoid jail time, but Paey refused, insisting that (a) he did nothing wrong, and (b) even if he had, it shouldn't be a crime to seek relief from chronic pain. Paey feared that a plea would make other doctors in the state more reluctant to treat pain than they already were.

  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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