Was the Life of Prince Taken by America’s Prescription Drug Epidemic?
By Carey Wedler
According to new reports, Prince was in possession of painkillers at the time of his death. Law enforcement sources cautioned they could not yet determine whether or not the pills were related to the death of the beloved icon last week. Conflicting statements from those who knew him make the truth difficult to decipher, and frenzied coverage from tabloids and news outlets makes the developing story all the more convoluted. Regardless of what the ongoing investigation determines, however, the emerging reports highlight America’s ongoing struggle with widespread prescription drug abuse.
CBS News reported two law enforcement officials informed them the painkillers were “in his possession and at his home” when he died, though it was unclear whether they were on him or simply in his home. Other news outlets also reported receiving the same information from unnamed sources. A local ABC affiliate cited “multiple sources close to the investigation” who said painkillers were found at his home, but like CBS, they did not indicate where in the home they were found. Prince was found unconscious and alone in an elevator in his Paisley Park home. First responders who attempted to revive him did not administer any overdose drugs, according to Carver County Minnesota Sheriff Jim Olson.
Investigators have reportedly begun tracking Prince’s history of prescription pill use and are focusing at least part of their investigation on painkillers. The DEA has joined the investigation due to the discovery of pharmaceutical opioids.
However, even as narratives have begun swirling around the possibility that Prince — like so many other millions of Americans — fell victim to the powerful pills, it remains unclear whether or not he had a history of addiction, and, of course, whether or not that was the cause of his death. As Mother Jones noted, Hollywood’s top gossip outlet, TMZ, reported that less than a week before Prince’s death, his private jet was forced to make an emergency landing after he was found unresponsive. He had been battling the flu for several weeks, though TMZlinked the landing to a drug overdose. As Mother Jones summarized:
“The celebrity news site TMZ, which first broke the news of the pop icon’s death, reported that doctors reportedly injected the 57-year-old with a ‘save shot’ to counteract the damaging effects of an opiate overdose of Percocet, a prescription painkiller with a combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen. Prince was treated and released from the hospital three hours after his arrival.”
Though flight records confirm a plane landing and Quad City airport officials confirmed an emergency medical landing, they did not provide details on who it concerned. It should be stressed TMZ provided no named sources.
Even so, an attorney close to Prince’s siblings said the musician battled an addiction to cocaine and Percocet, a painkiller, over a decade ago, fuelling speculation that painkillers took his life last week. In another development (that must be presented with a massive asterisk), an anonymous source allegedly told British tabloid, the Daily Mail, he was Prince’s drug dealer and sold him tens of thousands of dollars worth of drugs. It is necessary to keep in mind the sensational nature of Daily Mail, as well as the proclivity of figures seeking attention to crawl out of the woodworks following a celebrity death.
These caveats are all the more relevant considering others have insisted Prince was consistently sober and healthy. Robbie Paster, Prince’s valet and assistant from 1982 to 1992, said, “I never knew of any opiate or cocaine problem. There’s no way you can do both of those and be as driven as he was. I never saw it.”
Prince’s long-time attorney, L. Londell McMillan, said he was in great condition just days before he died, even after having suffered an ongoing flu. “He said he was doing perfect,” McMillan said of a conversation he had with Prince the Sunday before he died. He said that while Prince may have taken pain medication from time to time, he was “not on any drugs that would be any cause for concern.” Prince suffered from epilepsy throughout his life, and often experienced aches and pains from his many years performing on stage.
The conflicting stories surrounding his death make it effectively impossible, at this point, to know what actually happened. An autopsy was conducted last Friday, but the results will likely not be released for weeks. Regardless of what caused Prince’s death, however, the presence of painkillers at his home reflects the United States’ ongoing toxic relationship with legal opioids.
Countless other celebrities have struggled with prescription painkillers — as have millions in the United States and around the world. Whether or not it is concluded the painkillers were related to Prince’s death, however, their sheer presence in his home might — hopefully — further elevate the vital, ongoing conversation about dangerous, government-approved drugs in the United States, where the painkiller epidemic is most pronounced.
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