A group of prominent addiction doctors has mounted a quiet legal campaign on behalf of Cameron Douglas, the troubled son of the actor Michael Douglas, in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear for their view that drug addiction is best handled with more treatment, not more prison time.
In December, Douglas, who is 33 and serving a five-year federal sentence for drug distribution and heroin possession, was sentenced to an additional 4 1/2 years after being caught behind bars with heroin and Suboxone, a prescription medication used to blunt the pull of opioid addiction.
And it was that sentence, believed to be one of the harshest ever handed down by a federal judge for drug possession for an incarcerated prisoner, that prompted about two dozen addiction doctors and groups to file a brief on behalf of Douglas, whose case is under review by a panel from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Their argument is that Douglas, who began injecting heroin daily in his mid-20s but has not received drug treatment in prison, is a textbook example "of someone suffering from untreated opioid dependence" and that more prison time would do nothing to solve his underlying problems.
"My outrage is as a physician for someone who has a medical condition which has been ignored," said one of the brief’s signees, Dr. Robert Newman, director of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center. "What the judge has imposed has zero benefits for the community and has staggering consequences for society."
The sentence, handed down by Judge Richard M. Berman of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, came after heroin and Suboxone were found in a cell Douglas was occupying at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, while testifying against a former drug supplier. Shortly after that, he pleaded guilty to one count of drug possession by a federal prisoner.
Such charges are unusual; most inmates caught with drugs behind bars are sanctioned administratively with loss of prison privileges, said Daniel N. Abrahamson, the director of legal affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, the drug reform group that drafted the brief. Those punishments have also been levied on Douglas, whose penalties have included stints of isolated confinement in his cell and loss of family visits.
At a sentencing in December, prosecutors asked for an additional term of anywhere from 18 to 24 months, according to Douglas’ appeal. But Berman made it clear that his patience with Douglas was done, saying the inmate has been "continuously reckless, disruptive and noncompliant" and has repeatedly squandered opportunities and refused to obey the law.
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Douglas would seem an unlikely candidate for a cause celebre, as the scion of an acting family. But Abrahamson said the case had little to do with Douglas’ fame, though he acknowledged that few inmates have the resources needed to wage an appeal in federal court.
He said the goal of the brief was not only to help obtain a reduction, or dismissal, of Douglas’ 54-month sentence, but also to have the appellate panel make a statement on "how the federal corrections systems, in particular, but corrections in general have for a long time ignored the treatment need of their inmates."
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Douglas’ defense team filed the appeal in early May, outlining its client’s childhood, during which he drank heavily as a teenager, moved on to intravenous cocaine and heroin, and eventually was arrested in New York in 2009 for trying to sell large amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine. In 2010, he pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Douglas’ travails since his arrest, including episodes in which drugs were smuggled to him while he was incarcerated, have been tabloid fodder, something Howard Josepher, another of the brief’s signees, said has probably made efforts at recovery harder.
"A guy like this gets into prison, he’s got star power, so people inside actually they want to get close to him," said Josepher, who runs the New York-based Exponents, which offers drug treatment programs. "And they do that by offering him drugs."
Josepher, 73, an ex-convict and heroin user who said he has been clean for 45 years, said he hoped Douglas’ case would highlight what he called a contradictory approach to drug abuse by the criminal justice system.
"The various powers that be view addiction as a disease," he said. "But they treat people who have this illness as criminals."
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Prosecutors had no comment on the brief. Douglas’ lawyer, Nicholas M. De Feis, would say only that he and his client were "gratified that such a distinguished group of practitioners and experts have taken an interest in the case."
For his part, Michael Douglas said that he did not want to comment on the brief out of respect for the court, but was relieved by reports that his son had recently been released from protective custody at the federal prison in Loretto, Pa. "We did get some light at the end of the tunnel," Douglas said.