The TV camera is fixed on a hot, cast-iron frying pan. "This is your brain," says the narrator. An egg is cracked and dropped, splattering into the pan. "This is your brain on drugs," the commercial concludes, with a close-up of the egg burning and shriveling in popping oil. The implication: drugs fry your brain; they alter your thought patterns. It is a simple message about illegal-drug use directed toward the youth of America.
Earlier this month the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came up with a new message directed at every American. In the case of United States v. Charles Thomas Sell, the court ruled that mind-altering drugs -- prescription medications used to alter thought patterns -- may be forced on any person charged with a crime who exhibits unacceptable behavior. It held that it doesn't matter if the detainee poses no danger to himself or others, nor does it matter that the person charged has yet to go to trial for an alleged crime. Worse still, say critics, the court neither limited the quantity or type of drugs to be administered nor foreclosed even the use of experimental drugs.
With the help of government-appointed psychiatrists and psychologists, federal prosecutors argued that Charles Sell, a St. Louis dentist accused of Medicaid fraud, suffers from persecutory "delusional disorder." True, he had been vocal about alleged government conspiracies at Waco, Texas, in Bosnia and in mishandling HIV, but the government was careful to base its demand that he be drugged solely on the "seriousness of the fraud charges."
In May 1997, Sell had been charged in a federal complaint with making false representations in connection with payments for health-care services and committing Medicaid fraud, mail fraud and money laundering. As a result, he has been incarcerated variously in jail, prison or hospitals for nearly four-and-a-half years and has spent almost two years of that time in solitary confinement. The dissenting opinion in the 2-1 ruling allowing him to be drugged against his will pointed out that, had Sell been convicted and sentenced for the alleged crimes, he already would have served a year longer than the maximum sentence of 33 to 41 months.
The law of the land supports the premise that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Sell has been found sane by the courts and poses no threat to himself or others. But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court has ruled that drugging this maverick dentist will help him to assist in his defense. Specifically, the court found:
* "We agree that the evidence does not support a finding that Sell posed a danger to himself or others."
* "We conclude that, subject to the limitations outlined below, the government may forcibly administer antipsychotic medication for the sole purpose of rendering a pretrial detainee competent to stand trial without violating the accuser's due-process rights."
* "The court found that involuntary medication is the only way for the government to achieve its interest in fairly trying Sell and found that the medication is medically appropriate for him."
* "We find that the medical evidence presented indicated a reasonable probability that Sell will fairly be able to participate in his trial. As a result, we believe that the effects of the medication on Sell's competency and demeanor may properly be considered once the medication is administered."
Andrew Schlafly, general counsel for the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons Inc. (AAPS), a respected medical association dedicated to defending the patient-physician relationship and the ethical principles embodied in the Hippocratic oath, has filed an amicus curiae brief opposing the ruling. Schlafly tells INSIGHT that "Dr. Sell is being drugged because they [the government] want to try him in a drugged state. The government claims the drugs will help him to aid in his own defense, but the real offense here is the government charging him with a nonviolent crime, giving him a psychiatric evaluation and then forcibly drugging him. …