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Hunter Biden trial: Why his gun case hinges on one fateful day when he wasn’t using drugs

USA Today
By Dan Morrison

Hunter Biden’s addiction to crack cocaine was so bad, he recalled, that he alienated his children and his famous father despite their repeated attempts to help.

It was so bad that he lived among a pool of sleazy hangers-on in grimy hotel rooms on two coasts, prowling camps of homeless people for drugs at night.

It was so bad that he left his laptop at a Delaware repair shop and never came back for it until, in the heat of the 2020 presidential campaign, a worker passed the private contents of its hard drive, including explicit images and videos, to former President Donald Trump’s campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Those would later be displayed in the House of Representatives by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

“I’m… an alcoholic and a drug addict,” Hunter Biden says in the prologue to his 2021 memoir, “Beautiful Things,” written following four years of extreme drug abuse. Writing in USA TODAY last December, Biden, 54, decried the “weaponization of my addiction by partisan and craven factions.”

Today, Biden refers to himself as an addict in recovery. But there was a moment in 2018 when Biden was not an addict, his lawyers say. It was on Oct. 12, when he purchased a Colt .38 Special revolver and checked “No” on a federal gun form that asked: “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?”

On Monday, the president’s son goes on trial at a federal courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware, over charges he lied on that paperwork. Hunter Biden faces a maximum sentence of 25 years, if convicted. The case will hinge in part on whether Biden was legally addicted when he bought the gun – and which definition of the term might prevail with the judge and jury.

Substance abuse professionals – and the law itself – appear split over whether Biden was indeed an addict when he bought that revolver in 2018 and over the evolving meaning of addiction.

The trial comes as Biden, who has never held elected or public office, once again finds himself at the center of a momentous presidential campaign and as a monthslong Republican move to impeach President Joe Biden has fizzled in the House.

In and out of rehab

In the fall of 2018, Hunter Biden moved back to the East Coast after months of despairing drug abuse in California. At one point that summer, his uncle, James Biden, had hauled him out of a hotel room and placed him in a rehab center before he moved in with a sobriety coach in the hills over Los Angeles.

“It was great – the beauty, the peace, the support – right up until the moment I relapsed,” he writes in “Beautiful Things. “My lesson after a spring and summer of nonstop debauchery: no lesson at all.”

But it was during one of those periods of sobriety that Hunter Biden purchased the handgun and answered honestly on the federal paperwork, his lawyers say.

“At issue here is Mr. Biden’s understanding of the question,” his lawyer Abbe Lowell recently wrote the court. “Someone like Mr. Biden, who had just completed an 11-day rehabilitation program and lived with a sober companion after that, could surely believe he was not a present tense user or addict.”

Biden’s lawyers haven’t specified where and when the 11-day rehab took place, but they are emphatic that Biden could have reasonably considered himself sober as a result of it.

A ‘treatment experience,’ not ‘treatment success’

Some addiction experts aren’t so sure.

“Eleven days is a treatment experience. It’s not a treatment success,” said Kevin McEneaney, a former top official at Phoenix House, speaking from 30 years of working with people with substance use disorders.

“It may technically be great for court,” he added. “It’s not accurate in the world of addiction treatment.”

“If he was clean 11 days, I would still be coaching him, ‘Hey, you’ve got a serious condition for the rest of your life,’” McEneaney said. “I wouldn’t consider him away from his addiction.”

“You could argue you are not currently dependent on any substance,” Maia Szalavitz, the author of several books on addiction, said of Biden’s stance. “I would not consider that honest at that stage. The problem is that the legal concept of addiction is ancient.”

Is addiction in the eye of the beholder?

“There used to be a belief, ‘Once an addict, always an addict,’ “ said Peter Provet, CEO of Odyssey House, a New York drug treatment center. “It’s an old-school belief: Once you had that thing, it was always going to be there, that addictive vulnerability. That point of view may not always be correct.”

And the stigma of addiction remains even in sobriety, with discrimination in employment, professional licensing and social circles. “I stopped using drugs at 18 but I’ve been labeled an addict for the rest of my life,” McEneaney said.

If the professionals aren’t fully in agreement on when and for how long a person remains an “addict,” neither is the law.

Biden is charged with violating a statute that is written in the present tense. It is illegal for anyone “who is an unlawful user of or addicted” to narcotics to possess a gun.

But federal prosecutors want to define Biden’s addiction using a much broader Treasury Department definition, which considers a person “an unlawful current user of a controlled substance” if there is “a pattern of use or possession that reasonably covers the present time,” including a failed drug test in the past year.

Biden’s lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika to keep the damaging Treasury definition away from the jury. Noreika’s proposed jury instructions, released publicly on Saturday, steer clear of defining addiction. Both sides have until Monday morning to object to her instructions.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Jurors are likely to see plenty of evidence of the famous defendant’s use of cocaine – including some exhibits with inconvenient dates.

Justice Department special counsel David Weiss has pulled volumes of evidence of Biden’s drug use from both his memoir and his iCloud computer backup.

The exhibits include a message from Oct. 13, 2018 – one day after the gun buy – where Biden allegedly writes that he is “waiting for a drug dealer named Mookie,” and another from Oct. 14 in which he describes himself as “sleeping on a car smoking crack.”

Legally, the question of Biden’s sobriety may come down to his state of mind on the day he bought the pistol. His lawyers say he never loaded or used the weapon. On Oct. 23, Biden’s then-girlfriend Hallie Biden took the gun from his car and tossed it into a trash can outside a Delaware convenience store, where it was retrieved by a man harvesting empty cans and later by the police.

“It’s impossible to get well, no matter what the therapy, unless you commit to it absolutely,” Biden writes in “Beautiful Things.” “The Alcoholics Anonymous ‘Big Book’ – the substance abuse bible, written by group founder Bill Wilson – makes that clear: ‘Half measures availed us nothing.’”

“By this point in my life,” Biden says of those days in 2018, “I’d written the book on half measures.”

From ‘Where’s Hunter?’ to a public life

In the end, it wasn’t AA or therapy with the psychoactive root ibogaine, or the psychedelic compound 5-MeO-DMT, taken from the secretions of the Sonoran Desert toad, or the antidepressant ketamine that Biden ultimately found most helpful.

After four years in hell, Biden writes, in May 2019, he fell hard for Melissa Cohen, a South African woman with eyes that matched those of his late brother, Beau. She seized his electronics, flushed his drugs and kept at bay a coterie of toxic hangers-on.

After years of addiction Biden says, he found sobriety − and a new wife − in seven days.

After being hunted by Trump and his followers, his privacy destroyed by the leaking of the laptop’s contents, Biden is again a public figure. Where Trump once roared “Where’s Hunter?” at 2020 reelection rallies, the president’s son is often seen at his father’s side and at White House events.

More challenges remain. In addition to the federal gun trial, Hunter Biden faces federal charges in California over failure to pay $1.4 million in taxes, which he later paid to the government. The gun and tax charges both stem from a failed plea agreement between Biden and federal prosecutors that collapsed last summer. A trial in the tax case is set to begin Sept. 5 in Los Angeles, just before Joe Biden and Trump are scheduled for a debate.

Hunter Biden is also in the middle of a fractious multimillion-dollar alimony case with his ex-wife, Kathleen Buhle, who is expected to testify for the prosecution at the gun trial.

While Biden sometimes uses the language of the recovery moment to describe his addiction, he doesn’t write about his own recovery using those terms.

“He does not see himself in the 12-step lens. He attributes his recovery to falling in love,” author Szalavitz says. “That is a valid way of recovering.”

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