Drug Treatment Programs in Florida for Felons: Illegally Used Prescription Medication Risks

Recently we have had several clients present for psychotherapy treatment who are court stipulated to a drug program because of drug charges. Of course this is no surprise. But what is surprising is the level of charges and the clients we are seeing. For example, one of our clients could be confused with just about any other hockey mom (perhaps a recent exception). She is white, upper middle class, college educated, and working in a professional position. And although she has drug trafficking charges, which are a felony, the drugs she had in her possession were for private use and were prescription (of course she didn’t have a prescription). What is even more surprising is that she didn’t even have a month’s supply of the pain killer for someone for whom they might have been prescribed. The purpose of this article is to shed light on some of the risks currently being taken by those abusing prescription drugs.

Prescription drug abuse is the number one cause of drug related death in Florida. According to a New York Times article dated June 14, 2008, the “Medical Examiners Commission found that the rate of deaths caused by prescription drugs was three times the rate of deaths caused by all illicit drugs combined.” (Cave, D.). Yet this is often not enough to dissuade new users from trying, and becoming physically dependent on, prescription pain medications. Even high profile deaths including Heath Ledger and Anna Nicole Smith have little impact on those abusing the substance. This is largely a result of substance abusers believing they are invulnerable and the false belief they have a sense of control over their ingestion of substances.

Many who use or abuse opiate based pain medications aren’t even aware of its dependence potential. Most pain medications are made from opium or a synthetic opiate, which is the same main ingredient in heroin. Although tolerance (the need for more of the substance to get the desired effect) and withdrawal (physical and psychological symptoms resulting from the absence of the substance) take longer to develop in prescription medications, physical dependence can and often does develop. But the purpose of this article is to discuss drug law.

It is probably best to start with the lowest of crimes, simple possession of a substance. In this state the first offense is up to one year incarceration and a fine of up to $ 1000.00. A second offense is incarceration for not less than 15 days and no more than 2 years, and a minimum fine of $ 2500.00. A third offense results in at least 90 days in jail and no more than three years, and a minimum fine of $ 5000.00. The penalties for cocaine base are much harsher, and penalties can differ depending on the type of drug.

What is often misunderstood is the difference between possession and trafficking. It would seem to the average reader that trafficking involves moving large quantities of a substance, or at least selling it to another individual. This is not the case. Trafficking charges are usually based on weight. The weight for trafficking prescription medication is 28 grams. Now when this is applied to cocaine, it seems fair enough. 28 grams of cocaine is a lot, and it might be reasonable to say this person is selling the drug. But 28 grams of a pain medication such as Percocet can be as little as 6 or 7 pills. And much of the weight of Percocet pills come from Tylenol. But when an individual is caught with prescription medication that is not theirs, the intent is irrelevant to charges.

Trafficking charges, even for a first offense, can carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison. Even when the sentence is lighter (probation, house arrest, treatment) the offender is labeled a felon for the rest of their lives. This affects their rights, ability to get and maintain employment, and to live a productive life.

In a social psychology class this author teaches on the psychology of drug abuse, unfair drug laws are often discussed. This is often in the disproportionate penalties facing minorities. This is best illustrated by the sentencing of crack, versus regular cocaine. Simply put, crack penalties for one gram equate to 100 grams of powder cocaine. It is also a the fact that 50% of our prison population is for non-violent drug offenses. It seems some of the sentencing laws are unfair.

I am not trying to excuse illicit and self destructive behavior. But to even consider sentencing someone addicted to pain medication or other prescription drugs to prison and otherwise seriously damaging their life seems harsh. If any reader is interested in being active in reducing these mandatory sentencing guidelines, they can contact FAMM, which works to change some of the unfair drug laws.

The purpose of this article is to educate readers who may have a family member abusing prescription substances to some of the risks. These risks include possible physical dependence, overdose and death risk, and, what is often overlooked and is the main point of this article, incarceration and felony conviction for even relatively small amounts of a medication without a prescription.


William Berry MS., CAP. Program Director Addiction Education Consultants http://www.addictioneducationconsultants.com 954 306-0722

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Michael E. Arth on Restoring Felons’ Voting Rights – Currently, nearly a million Floridians are denied voting rights because of felony convictions. This is yet another way in which our dysfunctional voting system disenfranchises our citizens. Most people in US prisons are incarcerated because of issues either directly related to, or growing out of the racist and cynical War on Drugs, which is a war on the poor, and therefore a war on democracy and equality. Our incarceration rate in Florida is 8 times higher than in Canada, mostly because of drug policy. I do not believe that prisoners should ever lose their voting rights, because teaching prisoners about responsible citizenship and how to be part of a representative democracy should be part of the rehabilitation process. Once a prisoner is released he or she should be encouraged in every way to reenter society and be a useful, productive citizen. Voting is an important part of this process. I also believe that all citizens should have their voting rights restored. I have a bumper sticker that says, “If voting could change anything it would be illegal.” Voting, in any meaningful sense of the word, actually is illegal because we are denied fair elections because of the role that money and our winner-take-all voting system plays in politics. To solve these problems we need to have systemic electoral reform that does away with paid lobbyists and paid political advertising. Reform should also take money out of the electoral process, and replace winner-take-all with ranked


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