Florida's Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from Richard Paey, a wheelchair-using father of three who is currently serving a 25-year mandatory prison sentence for taking his own pain medication. In doing so, the court let stand a decision which essentially claims that the courts have no role in checking the powers of the executive and legislative branches of government when an individual outcome is patently unjust.
Richard Paey-- who suffers both multiple sclerosis and from the aftermath of a disastrous and barbaric back surgery that resulted in multiple major malpractice judgments--now receives virtually twice as much morphine in prison than the equivalent in opioid medications for which he was convicted of forging prescriptions.
He had previously been given legitimate prescriptions for the same doses of pain medicine-- but made the mistake of moving to Florida from New Jersey, where he could not find a physician to treat his pain adequately. Each of his medical conditions alone can produce agony. Paey has described his pain as constantly feeling like his legs had been "dipped into a furnace."
The Ivy-league educated attorney has no prior criminal convictions and weeks of surveillance by narcotics agents did not find him selling the medications.
The Florida Court of Appeals had upheld his conviction-- despite the lack of evidence of trafficking and despite the fact that most of weight of the substances he was convicted of possessing (higher weights lead to longer sentences) was made up of Tylenol, not narcotics. The majority suggested that Paey seek clemency from the governor, claiming that his plea for mercy "does not fall on deaf ears, but it falls on the wrong ears."
In a jeremiad of a dissent, Judge James Seals called the sentence "illogical, absurd, unjust and unconstitutional," noting that Paey "could conceivably go to prison for a longer stretch for peacefully but unlawfully purchasing 100 oxycodone pills from a pharmacist than had he robbed the pharmacist at knife point, stolen fifty oxycodone pills which he intended to sell to children waiting outside, and then stabbed the pharmacist."
But the Florida Supreme Court disagreed, letting the sentence stand, without comment. It released its cowardly decision in the media quiet of a Friday night. As Siobhan Reynolds, founder of the Pain Relief Network points out, "Where Florida stands now is that individuals have no recourse to the courts when the executive and legislative branches behave tyranically." Under the Constitution, the role of the judiciary is supposed to be to check the powers of the other branches-- not simply to defer to them.
Paey's only other alternatives now are an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or clemency from Governor Charlie Crist.
Writing in support of clemency, leading academic pain specialist Russell Portenoy, MD, said, "the information available indicates that any questionable actions [Paey] took, actions which led ultimately to his arrest, were driven by desperation related to uncontrolled pain."
He noted that such cases "may increase the reluctance of professionals to treat pain aggressively."
Portenoy wrote that despite the fact that Paey required high doses of opioids, those doses were "clearly in the range used by pain specialists in this country." He stressed that, "The number of pills or milligrams of an opioid required for analgesia says nothing about any of the negative outcomes associated with these drugs-including abuse, addiction and diversion-and reference to the amount of drug as evidence of these outcomes by regulators or law enforcement should not be condoned."
Unfortunately, across the country, pain patients are being undermedicated and doctors are going to prison because the Justice Department refuses to believe this.
People profess to be experts about addiction because they have personal experience with drugs or addicts; they think they know about opioid drugs because they've watched a few episodes of E.R. or been through DARE classes at school. The truth is that opioids are amongst the safest drugs known to humanity-- when given appropriately, they do not kill.
Unlike aspirin, Tylenol, Vioxx, Celebrex, Advil, Alleve and every other known class of pain medications, opioids do not harm any organs and there is no maximum dose once a person has become tolerant to them. People need to educate themselves about the complexities of how drugs, brains and settings interact before making policies about them that send people like Richard Paey to prison.
Who is served by the incarceration of Richard Paey? Certainly not his family, certainly not the taxpayers and absolutely not the image of America as a decent, humane country. Certainly not the interests of pain patients or even drug addicts-- neither of whom benefit from viewing drugs as a criminal justice issue. Not one child will be deterred from taking drugs, nor one mother saved the horror of an overdosed teen because we lock up those who need opioids to relieve their pain.
Governor Crist, please, do the right thing and send Richard Paey home.
[For more information and to send an email to urge Crist to free Paey, please click here]