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Rush to Judgment?

Two weeks ago, detractors of Rush Limbaugh labeled him a racist. Now they are calling him a hypocrite.

The conservative talk-radio commentator stunned listeners by admitting that he is addicted to painkillers and immediately entering 30 days of rehab.

“You know I have always tried to be honest with you and open about my life. So I need to tell you today that part of what you have heard and read is correct. I am addicted to prescription pain medication,” Limbaugh said at the close of Friday’s broadcast, which airs in 650 markets.

Reaction turned quickly to past comments by Limbaugh critical of drug use, including an oft-quoted line from 1995 that people who use drugs illegally ought to be put in jail. Limbaugh, 52, is involved in a police investigation of black-market medications in Palm Beach County, Fla., where he lives, according to media reports.

The left-leaning Center for American Progress named Limbaugh first recipient of the “Bill Bennett Hypocrisy Award,” comparing him to the well-known moral crusader who last summer announced he was quitting gambling after being outed as a high-stakes player of slot machines.

Limbaugh’s defenders on the right, however, said liberals, who preach tolerance and treatment for drug users, ought to think twice before throwing stones at Rush.

“The same people who have compassion for the dregs of humanity on the street and for animals and insects cannot find an ounce of compassion for Rush,” columnist Barbara Simpson wrote on the Web site World Net Daily. “And we know why. He committed the greatest sin: He’s a conservative.”

Gary Bauer, president of the conservative organization American Values, said there is a difference between a crack addict and Limbaugh’s type of addiction. “From a moral standpoint, there’s a difference between people who go out and seek a high and get addicted and the millions of Americans dealing with pain who inadvertently get addicted,” Bauer said in this week’s cover story in Newsweek.

Limbaugh said he first started taking painkillers years ago when his doctor prescribed them following back surgery. The surgery failed, he said, leading him to turn to pills to relieve chronic pain in his back and neck.

He said he has been struggling with addiction and twice checked himself into rehab in an effort to kick his habit.

Limbaugh said many athletes and celebrities receive great fanfare for overcoming drug problems, but he doesn’t want to be a role model. “I am no victim and do not portray myself as such,” he said. “I take full responsibility for my problem.”

Some compared Limbaugh’s fall to Elmer Gantry–the hypocritical evangelist in a 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis made into a film starring Burt Lancaster in 1960.

Others made a more ready connection with Limbaugh’s friend William Bennett, whom the Washington Monthly labeled “the Bookie of Virtue” in an article this summer exposing his gambling habit, parodying a title of one of his books on America’s alleged moral decline.

Limbaugh’s admission also raised questions about what caused his sudden hearing loss two years ago. Large doses of hydrocodone, one of the drugs Limbaugh might have used, can cause damage to the inner ear. Limbaugh, who regained partial hearing through an electronic ear implant, said his problems were due to an autoimmune inner-ear disease.

Limbaugh recently quit his job as a sports analyst for ESPN over controversy stemming from his comment that NFL player Donovan McNabb is overrated because the media desires for a black quarterback to succeed. Some criticized the statement as being racially insensitive. Limbaugh defended the remarks, saying he was just being honest.

Reports that Limbaugh possibly used drugs surfaced at the same time, when accusations by his former housekeeper were published by the National Enquirer. According to her story, her former boss was taking up to 30 pills a day of OxyContin, a drug that has earned the reputation as the heroin of rural America.

OxyContin is an oral medication in a class of drugs that includes morphine and codeine used to alleviate pain. While effective when taken as prescribed, any deviation from instructions can lead to addiction, defined medically as compulsive or uncontrollable use, according to Narcanon of Northern California.

Limbaugh’s troubles bring attention to the illicit use of prescription drugs, which the American Medical Association has identified as a growing concern.

About 4.4 million Americans abuse pain pills, according to the 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Another 1.8 million use tranquilizers illicitly, 1.2 million use stimulants and 400,000 use sedatives, according to the study.

Misuse of prescriptions is highest among the elderly and the young. Among drug users aged 12-14, psychotherapeutics were the second-most popular illicit drug, behind marijuana.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction specialist, said on CNN that an addiction to drugs like the one Limbaugh described is among the toughest to kick, and that 30 days in rehab will be just a first step.

“Well we’re really talking about opiate addiction. And it doesn’t matter if you’re taking OxyContin, Vicodin, Lortab, heroin or codeine,” he said. “It’s all the same disease and it has basically the same biology.”

Pinsky said use of the drug creates a “reward system” in a person genetically prone to addiction, which in turn alters motivational priorities of the brain.

“It is literally a hijacking of the survival system, whereby the brain begins confusing the actuality of survival with the chemical message of the drug,” he said. “So people with this disease … will literally die to get the drug, do anything to get the drug without really consciously realizing this is what’s behind the behaviors.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Also see “Is Rush a Racist?”