Punishing Pain
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Punishing Pain

When I visited Richard Paey here, it quickly became clear that he posed no menace to society in his new home, a high-security Florida state prison near Tampa, where he was serving a 25-year sentence. The fences, topped with razor wire, were more than enough to keep him from escaping because Mr. Paey relies on a wheelchair to get around.

Mr. Paey, who is 46, suffers from multiple sclerosis and chronic pain from an automobile accident two decades ago. It damaged his spinal cord and left him with sharp pains in his legs that got worse after a botched operation. One night he woke up convinced that the room was on fire.

"It felt like my legs were in a vat of molten steel," he told me. "I couldn't move them, and they were burning."

His wife, Linda, an optometrist, supported him and their three children as he tried to find an alternative to opiates. "At first I was mad at him for not being able to get better without the medicines," she said. "But when he's tried every kind of therapy they suggested and he's still curled up in a ball at night crying from pain, what else can he do but take more medicine?"

The problem was getting the medicine from doctors who are afraid of the federal and local crusades against painkillers. Mr. Paey managed to find a doctor willing to give him some relief, but it was a "vegetative dose," in his wife's words.

"It was enough for him to lay in bed," Mrs. Paey said. "But if he tried to sit through dinner or use the computer or go to the kids' recital, it would set off a crisis, and we'd be in the emergency room. We kept going back for more medicine because he wasn't getting enough."

As he took more pills, Mr. Paey came under surveillance by police officers who had been monitoring the prescriptions. Although they found no evidence that he'd sold any of the drugs, they raided his home and arrested him.

What followed was a legal saga pitting Mr. Paey against his longtime doctor (and a former friend of the Paeys), who denied at the trial that he had given Mr. Paey some of the prescriptions. Mr. Paey maintains that the doctor did approve the disputed prescriptions, and several pharmacists backed him up at the trial. Mr. Paey was convicted of forging prescriptions.

He was subject to a 25-year minimum penalty because he illegally possessed Percocet and other pills weighing more than 28 grams, enough to classify him as a drug trafficker under Florida's draconian law (which treats even a few dozen pain pills as the equivalent of a large stash of cocaine).

Scott Andringa, the prosecutor in the case, acknowledged that the 25-year mandatory penalty was harsh, but he said Mr. Paey was to blame for refusing a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail.

Mr. Paey said he had refused the deal partly out of principle - "I didn't want to plead guilty to something that I didn't do" - and partly because he feared he'd be in pain the rest of his life because doctors would be afraid to write prescriptions for anyone with a drug conviction.

If you think that sounds paranoid, you haven't talked to other chronic-pain patients who've become victims of the government campaigns against prescription drugs. Whether these efforts have done any good is debatable (and a topic for another column), but the harm is clear to the millions of patients who aren't getting enough medicine for their pain.

Mr. Paey is merely the most outrageous example of the problem as he contemplates spending the rest of his life on a three-inch foam mattress on a steel prison bed. He told me he tried not to do anything to aggravate his condition because going to the emergency room required an excruciating four-hour trip sitting in a wheelchair with his arms and legs in chains.

The odd thing, he said, is that he's actually getting better medication than he did at the time of his arrest because the State of Florida is now supplying him with a morphine pump, which gives him more pain relief than the pills that triggered so much suspicion. The illogic struck him as utterly normal.

"We've become mad in our pursuit of drug-law violations," he said. "Generations to come will look back and scarcely believe what we've done to sick people."


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