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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Did We Lose Prince to Prescription Pills? (Probably)

Posted By on Thu, Apr 28, 2016 at 12:24 PM

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Yesterday, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune confirmed via public records what TMZ reported last week in a blind, unsourced item: Prince overdosed on prescription opiates on his private plane while en route from what would be his final concert in Atlanta. The plane was diverted and landed in Illinois so paramedics could give the musician a shot of Narcan, the same opiate overdose antidote used to revive overindulging heroin users (and with which San Francisco police are currently equipped).

All this happened six days before Prince was found dead back at home at Paisley Park in Minnesota a week ago today, after being seen out and about over the preceding few days: going to a jazz club, buying music on Record Store Day, and — again, according to TMZ — visiting a Walgreen's, where he may have collected one of the 259 million prescriptions American doctors have written for legal opiates.

Though results from Prince's autopsy won't be known for weeks, multiple sources are reporting more pills were found at the home following his death. 

In the last seven days, tributes have been paid to Prince from presidents and nearly every important musical artist still alive. Thus far, absent from the elegies have been any calls to action. It may now be time. He may have been our generation's greatest musician — meaning, it looks awfully like we lost our greatest musician to our country's ongoing prescription pill addiction.

An epic dancer as well as a legendary everything else, Prince supposedly had hip replacement surgery in 2008, after which time he was prescribed Oxycodone — the generic name for Percocet, our generation's prescription morphine in pill form — for residual pain. Oxy is habit-forming, and there is more and more of it around than ever.

An intensely private person who supposedly lived a clean life, there is currently very little window into Prince's life and habits that could show whether he displayed any outward signs of addiction. (Yes, he was a Jehovah's Witness, and Witnesses abhor drugs; Witnesses, however, are "allowed" to use prescription meds.)

He certainly was functional: he was on tour, selling out places like Oracle Arena, where he put on incredible displays of stamina and charisma as well as demonstrating he hadn't lost anything. Though this means nothing; certainly the world has had artists hooked on poppies creating before.

Who to blame for this? It may be hard to pin this all on the medical-pharmaceutical complex. It's an anecdote from director Kevin Smith, but it may be illuminating: Prince lived in "Prince world," the kind of place where asking for a zoo animal at 3 a.m. was a reasonable request. You can get almost anything you want in America with money and celebrity; Prince had plenty of both. If Prince wanted some Percocet — if he was chasing the dreamy euphoria you get on opiates, or if he needed a respite from chronic pain in order to create, or merely to just live — there was absolutely nothing stopping him from getting it.

The CDC says 1.9 million Americans are hooked on prescription pain meds, resulting in 420,000 annual ER visits for overdoses. One in 550 of these people die — unless they up their self-medication, in which case 1 in 32 die.

It's quite possible Prince was hooked, something we'll learn in coming weeks when results from the autopsy are released. Until then, we must guess.

And unfortunately, the guesses lead back to the pills. Here's a guy who otherwise looked healthy, who OD'd a few days before he died, who supposedly had pills around him when he died. All signs point to Prince being a prescription pain pills casualty. He's not the only one, but he's the most famous — and, if you give weight to being an artist in a commercial world, the most important.  

Does this matter? Prince famously did whatever he wanted to do, and as a few of his eulogists have noted, having Prince around for 57 years in a world where Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and others died in their 20s was a "blessing." That sounds nice, but it's also bullshit. This may have been avoidable. There are options beyond a dangerous, habit-forming, and readily-available opiate to manage pain. We should make them available instead of making excuses. Instead, we're handing out more pills, to the point where we are literally drowning in them.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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